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Dealing with underperforming employees

June 28, 2021

Dealing with underperforming employees can be difficult and quite uncomfortable even for experienced managers. If an employee is underperforming, it can be very costly in terms of time and productivity costs and very frustrating to you and your team. So unfortunately, sometimes you do have to have those uncomfortable conversations. However, it doesn't have to be as bad as you think it will be (or it may have been in the past)! Below are some tips for dealing with an underperforming employee and making that uncomfortable situation a little less so. 


Understanding the causes of underperformance

Before we discuss how to handle underperformance, we need to understand the reasons behind it. There are many reasons as to why an employee may be underperforming. Some of the most common reasons include:

  • A misunderstanding of what is expected of them in their role and in tasks due to a lack of clarity
  • A lack of knowledge and skills
  • Uncertainty as to whether they are meeting requirements
  • Low motivation and confidence
  • Personal issues (e.g. mental health problems, family stress, etc.)
  • Poor work environment
  • Workplace bullying
  • Interpersonal differences 

It is important to understand that there are a number of factors that can be influencing performance and to go into any conversations with employees with an open mind and a great deal of empathy.


Dealing with underperformance

There are two parts to dealing with underperformance, the actual conversation with the employee and then where to go from after the conversation. Let’s take a look at each in depth.


The conversation:

  • Fast feedback

A great way to deal with underperformance at the beginning is to give feedback sooner. By reducing the gap between identifying that an employee is underperforming and taking action, it gives the employee a chance to make changes and reduces potential confusion for the employee. The hallmark of effective feedback is timeliness and can be invaluable for employees who are underperforming.

  • Active listening 

Along with coming into the conversation with a great deal of empathy and understanding, we have to be prepared to listen to the employee. Listen, ask them questions and support them. Active listening shows an employee that they are truly being heard and can start the improvement process on the right foot.

  • Be specific 

Speak clearly as to what the performance issue is and have the facts to back it up. Whether that be data, emails, policies, etc. have that handy so your employee can understand what the issue is. Being as specific as possible eliminates the room for confusion.

  • Create goals together

When discussing underperformance with your team members, it's important to set some performance goals together. Discuss achievement and improvement targets and figure out a way to move forward together!

  • Tie their job back to personal goals

Discuss with them their motivations on a personal level. Find out what your employee’s personal goals are and show them how improving their performance in their job can help them achieve their goals. 


Where to go from there?

  • Consider silent mentoring 

Take a look at assigning your underperforming team member a ‘silent mentor’; someone who can give them a helping hand and watch over them, without being too obvious or overbearing. Why should you consider this option? Well, an employee who feels like everything they do is being picked through with a fine tooth comb is likely to lose a bit of confidence, will make more mistakes and will lose a bit of self esteem. A silent mentor can take the pressure off the underperforming employee and really give them the chance to improve. 

  • Give them more work

Giving an employee more work to do can actually be a helpful way to deal with underperformance. It shows that they are important, that you trust them and that despite poor performance, that you do still value them. If an employee is feeling as though they are being underutilised or wasting their skills, giving them more work and more responsibilities can improve their morale and overall performance.

  • Switch up the workspace

If your employee is feeling a little stuck in a rut, changing up their workspace can help them gain a bit more energy and bring back a little bit of that spark. Perhaps a redesign of their current space, or altering their working from home situation. A change of scenery can be just the ticket to pull them out of their rut. 

  • Give appropriate training

Employees that feel as though they are underskilled or have a lack of knowledge could benefit greatly from additional training. Make sure you have the tools and training programs necessary to help train and re-engage them with the workplace. 

  • Don’t forget to check in!

Of course, you need to be checking in on performance regularly and see how they are going with improving and implementing strategies you have worked on together. If you’re not checking in with them, then there was no point in having the conversation and working out ways to improve performance in the first place!


There are many reasons why an employee may be underperforming and it's our goal as leaders to understand the reasons behind underperformance and address it. While at times, taking this approach to underperformance simply won’t work and you discover that an employee simply is not the right fit, it’s best to start by implementing strategies and going in with a great deal of understanding.

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