9 Ways to Help an Underperforming Employee Succeed

Keeping morale high across your workforce is a difficult job for any manager. Yet knowing how to motivate underperforming employees is an essential part of the job. While the flexibility that modern working offers can be a big asset, it is not without its challenges, such as knowing how to engage employees whose work ethics seem to be waning.

It’s natural for people to relax a bit at home, especially when they’ve gotten used to getting up late and working in their jammies. There isn’t anything wrong with feeling comfortable in your own space either, provided it doesn’t affect output. The working-from-home revolution changed the game, but there remain age-old tactics to ensure productivity remains high.

As a manager, maintaining the very essence of productivity in a team is your duty.

Developing a good framework where activities can be analyzed and responsibility is taken effectively should help to avoid situations in which employees are falling short of expectations. But it’s inevitable that every so often someone on the team will need a pep talk.

Read on to find tips on managing underperformance in your team.

What Is Underperformance?

Although the parameters for performance quality vary among roles and companies, generally an underperforming employee is classified as someone who fails to match the standards that are expected from the company.

Although the employee may view this issue as solely relevant to their personal work level, it can reflect badly on the whole organization.

How to Identify Underperforming Employees

Like any other issue that damages a system, underperformance in itself is an ‘infection’ that is affecting the healthy performance of an organization. To start working on it, a good manager must be proficient at identifying it as it is occurring.

Three important signs of underperformance in the workplace:

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The Most Common Causes of Underperformance

A manager dealing with underperforming employees can’t solve the issue unless the underlying root of the problem is identified.

Underperformance can be a result of many factors, such as:

How Remote Work Can Contribute to Underperformance

Example: How General Electric Addressed Underperformance—But Sacrificed Morale

An insightful strategy that may shed light on a classic solution for how to manage poor performance in the workplace is the Rank and Yank philosophy popularized by Jack Welch when he was CEO of General Electric. In this case, every quarter, every team had to identify the bottom 20% of their workforce and create individual improvement plans. Employees who failed to meet their improvement goals would be terminated.

This plan may have led to improved results for the sales or support teams, if at the cost of a much-increased hiring budget. Unfortunately, this strategy also has its drawbacks as it can cause managers to strain for reasons that the team members were underperforming, and then hang their future employment on improving those subjective measurements.

While efficiency may improve from a numbers standpoint with this strategy, dissatisfaction among long-term employees will often nosedive. This may cause potentially some of the best employees to quit and look for a more positive workspace. The questionable job security is often not worth the uncertainty and stress that comes from the organization’s method of dealing with underperforming employees.

As such this strategy may not be an optimal solution. But the question of how to motivate an employee who is underperforming remains, and employees still fear that their next performance review will be their last.

For a positive solution, an organization should focus on actionable strategies that focus on feedback and improvement rather than punishments and penalization. While competitive strategies may lead to a personal rise in efficiency, they can often reduce trust within teams, as employees strive to be the lone top survivor in an almost battle royal-esque workplace.

By creating an atmosphere that’s in line with the long-term goals of the company, you can iron out uncertainty as employees find their rightful place. This includes:

9 Collaborative Ways to Support Underperforming Employees

Assume the Best

At BambooHR, our company value of "Assume the Best" focuses on removing the competitive detraction that’s leftover from the rank-and-yank years. We encourage our employees to view mistakes from their fellow employees as simply that: honest errors—not attempts at sabotage. Simultaneously, doing the right thing for our team members and clients requires everyone to live up to their job descriptions, plus a little extra where possible.

When it comes to employee performance, these values set high expectations. Put together, they allow employees to learn and grow without fearing the repercussions of making a mistake. This has led to practices like the “oops email”: for example, if a developer breaks the site and prevents other departments from doing their work, then that developer will send out an email to the organization in which they identify the problem, analyze how it happened, and state what they’re going to do differently in the future.

Try the SMART System

Sometimes all you need is the right acronym. The SMART system is a tried and tested management technique that stands for:

With clear goals in mind, employees can quickly develop plans of their own to achieve said results while managers can effectively gain insights and provide real-time feedback on their work. With time, this focused way of working can boost results and morale.

This approach can often result in improved performance and a better rapport between the manager and the employee which slowly leads to financial success for the company.

Connect Performance Measurement To Larger Goals

Is the goal of your attendance policies to just have someone sitting at their desk looking busy? Is the goal of your performance review process to justify someone’s current compensation, or to develop their career in your organization? Over time, these goals will become clear to your employees as they experience your day-to-day culture.

Recognize And Account For Manager Subjectivity

The flip side of an underperforming employee can be an overly-subjective manager. While there’s no escaping manager subjectivity with standardized employee assessment practices, this is especially helpful when an employee’s contributions aren’t easy to quantify.

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Communicate Frequently And Openly

The best time to help an employee change course is right after they make a wrong turn, not six months down the road. Developing a combination of informal in-the-moment feedback and regular one-on-one meetings can allow managers to make these course corrections and employees to provide their feedback in return. Managers and employees can then reach a solution that works for everyone.

Create A Positive Atmosphere

Mental health plays a vital role in productivity and good management recognizes the value of personal issues as well. With employees working from a variety of locations and through different means (Hybrid, office, remote), they can face a lot of burnout and stress. Creating a sociable environment free of toxicity and accessible digitally can help employees gel with each other and reduce the anxiety that comes from a solo remote environment.

Create Team-Based Incentives

Despite their effects on team trust, incentives in essence are a great way to reduce performance lag in employees. This is why their nature needs to evolve for modern use.

Rather than competitive incentives for employees, whole teams should be incentivized together with rewards so that they can pick up each other’s slack and upskill their teammates to perform the very best that they can. The idea of “if we all fail, we fail together” creates a spirit of duty and respect as long as people are honest with one another.

Develop A Personalized Improvement Plan

Every employee is unique, and their improvement plan should be tailored to their problems and skillset. Managers should work with each employee to identify their strengths and weaknesses and develop a personalized plan that speaks to both their and the company’s goals.

Offer Constructive Feedback

Employee feedback should ideally be implemented in a positive light. Here questions should not be themed in the “what are you doing wrong” or “don’t do this” style and instead should be focused on how the employee can improve their current work style. The point here is to reach a position of better understanding so that you can also implement changes across the company.

Your employees are your organization’s most valuable asset—not just for what they’re contributing today, but for their future potential. The decision on how to manage poor performance in the workplace can shape the long-term outlook of the company, so remember to remind employees of the talents that got them hired in the first place.

4 Questions You Should Ask Underperforming Employees

No matter where you are in the implementation process for improving employee performance, you should always stay connected with your employees with honest dialogue.

Here are a few questions you should consider asking underperforming employees:

Is the employee feeling all right? Before moving the direction of the conversation towards work, a general discussion on mental and physical health will give you more insight on their performance, and how it is affected by non-work related factors.

How would they rate their current performance? Often employees cannot realize that their work is subpar. Allowing them to rate and talk about their performance will help troubleshoot this and give you insights into the organization’s perceived standards.

What is the reason behind the decline in performance? Before implementing solutions for underperformance, you should focus on understanding the reasons for said performance levels with the specific employee’s case.

Is the employee playing to their strengths and fitting in? Good feedback also considers if the employee is fitting well within their respective role. If employees can perform tasks that would fit their skills better and assist the team, doing so may boost both performance and morale.

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