Underperformers find their way into every business and left unchecked can impact the bottom line and the company culture. Of course many underperformers are just inherently lazy, but there are just as many who want to bridge the performance gap and become a valuable team member.

If you ask a people leader the least favourite part of their job, there is no question that managing underperformance will be top of their list. Some consider it awkward or even confrontational and others just see it as a waste of time that distracts them from their ‘real’ job. However you view it; underperformance negatively impacts the employee, team, and business.

The good news is that managing underperformance doesn’t need to be likened to the dreaded dentist appointment. When approached with the right intent by both parties, it is possible to have a positive experience where the employee is able to reach their potential and the leader can feel rewarded for their efforts.

10 key tips to manage underperformance with confidence

1. Ensure the goal posts are defined

Many leaders have underperforming teams simply because they did not clearly understand the expectations. When this occurs, workers can be surprised when told that they are not up to standard. The easiest way to avoid this is to frame up expectations early and check in to ensure that employees know where they are headed and that they have the tools to get there.

Ask yourself:

  • Does each employee have clearly defined goals?
  • Do you have a team culture where workers feel comfortable to ask questions?
  • Has each team member received adequate training and support?
  • Do you provide regular feedback and coaching or save it up for performance reviews?

2. Don’t put off feedback

If you don’t ever check the maintenance of your car, you will get a nasty surprise when it goes in for a service. The same can be said at performance reviews if the leader isn’t taking to time to ‘check in’ with team members and help them to stay on track. In addition, managers that put off addressing underperformance send a message to others in the team that low performance is acceptable. Ensure underperformance is addressed in a timely manner and be consistent with all team members.

3. Do your homework

Telling an employee that they “are just not where they need to be” is about as useless as a random “good job”. Vague feedback provides more questions than answers and is certainly not a ‘call to action’. Do your homework on what specifically is not meeting expectations so you are both clear on the problem. Gather useful data such as sales figures and present to the employee. Use open questions to allow mutual understanding and ownership such as:

  • What do you think is going well?
  • Where do you see the opportunities for improvement?
  • What can I do to support you to achieve these goals?
  • Why do you feel that these results are not where they need to be?

4. Consider the environment

Most employees like to succeed in their position, so it is useful to approach underperformance with an inquisitive mindset. If the workers has a strong track record, what could be happening that is causing the drop in performance?

Look deeper than the data to uncover what may be a contributing factor:

  • What key changes has the organisaiton made that may be impacting? e.g. restructure, acquisition, redundancies, new software, drop in culture?
  • What external factors may be contributing? E.g. health pandemic, new competitors in the market, change in consumer needs?
  • What personal challenges may be impacting performance? E.g. divorce, health, finance?
  • Is there a larger issue at play? E.g. mental health, bullying, sexual harassment.

5. Understand employee motivators

Employers that use incentives for sales teams enjoy success when the employees are motivated by reward; but what about when they are motivated by recognition or training opportunities? Not understanding individual motivators is like offering football tickets to an employee that loves the ballet. Take the time to find out the intrinsic motivators and tailor this to their goals.

6. Remove the emotion

Performance discussions can become heated quite quickly when both parties bring emotion to the table. It is important to remember that it is about the performance and not the person; so keep comments balanced and related to tasks and outputs.

Avoid comments such as, “you are too slow with production”, and replace with, “can you help me to understand what might be preventing you from reaching production targets?” The first is accusatory and the second seeks to explore a solution.

7.Work in partnership

Successful performance partnerships are not about hierarchy. Strong performance outcomes come when the employee is clear on where they need to be and are supported to get there. Ask employees what their performance goals should look like and you may be surprised by the answer. Many employees want to collaborate on performance targets and will openly request feedback. Be brave enough to call out underperformance early but follow up with a solution based mindset that invites workers on the journey.

8. Check in and reward success

Devising a strong set of performance goals is useless without having a follow up process. This enables leaders to recognise when things are going well and catch a performance problem before it becomes a larger issue. If the goal has milestones to achieve, encourage the employee to share when they have reached them. Demonstrating support and interest shows team members that you are not stockpiling feedback for the end of year review. This generates trust and engagement.

9. Be open to feedback on your leadership

No leader is perfect and even with the best intent, some managers rub their employees up the wrong way. Having the courage to ask, “what part of my leadership style is going well for you?” and “what could I do to better meet your needs?” creates trust and shows the team member that you see feedback as a positive tool to raise effectiveness. Perhaps there is a small leadership tweak that would enhance performance outcomes.

10. Know when it is time to act

If underperformance continues, it is time to act. Leaders have a responsibility to follow the process outlined in their performance policy and industrial instrument, however when Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) fail, difficult decisions need to be made. Leaders should always look to ‘manage in’ instead of ‘managing out’, however there comes a time when underperformance needs to be formally addressed. Employers need to ensure that they follow appropriate procedures in line with best practice and workplace relations laws to lessen the risk of an unfair dismissal claim or other issues. 

Coachable or ‘checked out’?

Most employees who have the support, tools, and appetite to improve will get there with coaching, but that is not always the case. Leaders will not be successful in coaching for improvement with an employee who lacks the self-awareness or willingness to improve. Its perfectly fine for employees to say that, “numbers aren’t my strength”, but if the position involves balancing the books then their motivators are irrelevant.

When employees have the acknowledgement that there is a performance gap, the willingness to improve and the support of leadership; anything is possible. Conversely, a worker that is left to their own devices without performance feedback may just become lost at sea without the tools or time to turn the ship around.

Further information

For assistance with your workplace matters, Members of Ai Group can contact us or call our Workplace Advice Line on 1300 55 66 77 for further information.

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Georgina Pacor
Georgina is Senior Content Writer and HR Specialist – Publications at Ai Group. She is an accomplished Human Resource professional with over 20 years of generalist and leadership experience in a broad range of industries including financial services, tourism, travel, government and agriculture. She has successfully advised and partnered with senior leaders to implement people and performance initiatives that align to business strategy. Georgina is committed to utilising her experience to create resources that educate and engage and is passionate about supporting members to optimise an inclusive workforce culture that drives performance.