An Action Plan for the Underperforming Employee

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If you’re facing one of the most challenging issues of management — a chronically underperforming employee — what do you do?

No matter what, you have a difficult task ahead: You’ve got to help the person improve their performance (easier said than done), or you’ve got to terminate the employee and find someone who will perform better (a process that comes with great emotion and uncertainty).

Facing this dilemma, a lot of managers take the easy way out: they turn a blind eye. It’s so much easier to rationalize low performance — “They’re not doing that bad,” “Do I really have to fire them?” — than to do the uncomfortable work of addressing the issue head-on.

But as a manager, that’s what you’re paid for. In fact, if you’re not addressing underperformers on your team, you yourself are underperforming.

Here’s the action plan we at MGR360 recommend to managers who have a chronic low performer reporting to them. It’s not going to be a “fun” process, but the work benefits everyone — including the low performer themselves.

Step 1: Commit to Honesty

Right out of the gate, commit to being honest with the person as you go through this process. Sugarcoating doesn’t do any good.

I don’t know any manager who likes giving negative feedback. Surveys measuring management competencies often pinpoint this. For example, the authors of The 2020 Workplace asked HR professionals to rate managerial skills within their organization — and dead last on the list was the ability to give “straight feedback.” Meanwhile, employees at the same organizations listed getting “straight feedback” as the #2 thing they wanted in a manager.

That’s quite a disconnect. When you squirm out of honesty, you do a disservice to the employee and the organization.

One good strategy to use here is feedforward. The idea of feedforward is that instead of harping on what the employee did wrong in the past, you focus on what you hope to see in the future. Shifting the frame from past to future takes the sting out of honesty about the person’s performance. Leaving a feedforward session, the employee feels hopeful, not helpless.

Step 2: Diagnose the Root Cause

Now it’s time for diagnosis. This step is critical, because arriving at the correct solution requires identifying the correct problem.

Read the following list of potential root causes of underperformance. Which best fits your employee? Each situation requires its own unique approach, but I have described the general shape of the path forward for employees who fall in each category.

The employee doesn’t know WHAT to do.

Are the employee’s roles and goals defined well enough? If not, the employee may simply be exerting most of their effort on the wrong things. As the manager, you need to make sure you and the employee see eye to eye on the fundamentals of the role and how success in it is measured.

The path forward: Unsurprisingly, this situation calls for a lot more clarity on your expectations for the employee. Simply writing a strong role description in conjunction with the employee goes a long way. The role description should include:

      • Current Responsibilities: The tangible outcomes the employee owns in this role.
      • Core Metrics: The 2–5 metrics that define success in the role.
      • Processes: The processes required to influence the core metrics.
      • Tools: The tools tied to the processes.

This role-description document, though simple, creates a great deal of clarity between you and the employee on WHAT needs to be done in the role.

The employee doesn’t know HOW to do it.

Sometimes the employee lacks the skills or knowledge needed to get the right work done. They may have been thrown into the role without enough training; they may have been outpaced by the latest techniques and best practices in their field; or they may simply not be suited to that type of work.

The path forward: I’ve found that many managers are prone to hire people who they think will require the least on-the-job training. While this makes sense in theory, it ignores the fact that everyone, even highly skilled people, require training in any role. When lack of training is the root issue, the manager must carve out time and resources to ensure that the employee can gain the skills required.

The employee doesn’t know WHY the work is important.

If the employee knows what to do and how to do it but still isn’t delivering results, the issue may come down to simple lack of purpose. When an employee no longer feels that the work is important or meaningful, they may check out. Perhaps their work doesn’t align with how they want to grow, or perhaps they feel like they are just going through the motions, not having any real effect on the organization or its customers.

The path forward. For the manager, lack of purpose can feel like a very ambiguous problem to solve — where do you even start? Fortunately, the psychologist Frederick Herzberg has explained in very clear, practical terms how to grow employee motivation in a popular article available on HBR.org. Herzberg’s key insight was understanding that what we think of as motivators — things like a nice office, a great salary, etc. — are not true drivers of motivation. Those items, when not handled right, can demotivate people, but it’s things like achievement, growth, and recognition that actually motivate people in the long term.

A big reason that these motivators work so well is that they imbue the employee’s work life with a sense of purpose. In 1-on-1s, help the employee dig into the “why” of their role. How does it help other people in the organization? How does it improve customers’ lives? How does it advance the employee’s own personal growth?

The employee is experiencing interpersonal or cultural problems.

Finally, sometimes the issue lies at the personal or cultural level. We’ve all worked with people who are disruptive or toxic or act like jerks sometimes.

The path forward: This is a tough one for any manager. Fortunately, I’ve most often found that people having mild to moderate problems in this area simply need more self-awareness. Often they are oblivious to the established culture on the team — they haven’t picked up on “how things work around here.”

Coaching is the best tool to use here. Give the person a window into how they are perceived by others on the team. Show them what they might change in the future to function better in the cultural environment of their team.

Step 3: Implement a Continuous Follow-Up Mechanism

Once you’ve pinpointed the issue, the process of managing and coaching the employee to improvement begins. Fortunately, most managers have a built-in mechanism that’s the best place to do this work: the weekly 1-on-1 meeting.

If you’re not already doing 1-on-1s each week with the underperforming employee, start immediately. Have the initial conversation — which, again, may be uncomfortable — to let the employee know what you’ve observed, what you suspect the root cause is, and what you hope to see change in the future. Remember to stay trained on the future by using feedforward. Focus on the behaviors and outcomes you want to see ahead, not the things they got wrong in the past.

After the initial conversation, each weekly 1-on-1 will be a time to follow up. What steps have you committed to as the manager? What steps has the employee committed to? It’s up to you to hold yourself and the employee accountable to those commitments each week.

Step 4: Determine the Outcome

The process of managing and coaching an employee to improved performance may take several months. Generally, you want to give the person at least three months to show tangible improvement.

At the end of three months, you’ll need to make an assessment: Has the employee improved to the point that they add business value to the team? If the answer is yes, that’s great. But if the answer is no, action is required. This may take the form of letting the person go or seeking out a different role in the organization where they can contribute value. 

Some managers are far too slow to make this call, letting underperformers linger on well past a reasonable improvement period. Not only does this drag down your team’s direct ability to get the right stuff done — it also demoralizes the very best people on your team. For most of the A-players I know, tolerance of poor performance on the team is one of the prime reasons they look for work elsewhere.

•  •  •

While it would certainly be nice if everyone on your team got their job done perfectly without your involvement, that’s not how it works — and that’s why we need managers in the first place. Handling a chronic low performer may not be the most enjoyable facet of your career in management, but it is one of the key ways to lead a team to peak performance.

Joel Trammell

Joel Trammell

Joel has learned the value of great managers over a quarter century serving as CEO of both public and private companies. As CEO and cofounder of NetQoS, a network management software firm, he delivered 31 consecutive quarters of double-digit revenue growth and a $200 million valuation. In 2010, Joel cofounded Cache IQ, a storage software company that NetApp acquired two years later. He is the author of two books, The CEO Tightrope and The Manager’s Tightrope—a complete guide to the manager’s role. He currently serves as CEO of Khorus, a company he founded to provide a business management system for chief executives.

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