Managing the Underperformer

Tips for turning an underachiever into a high-level performer

Ben Smith

April 24, 2007

6 Min Read
ITPro Today logo

Unlike Garrison Keillor's fictitious Lake Wobegon, where "all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average," not all your employees will be above average. In fact, you'll have your share of underperformers. One mark of an outstanding manager is the ability to turn underperforming employees, particularly those who have been successful in the past, into strong performers.

Some managers unintentionally make mistakes that can contribute to an employee becoming an underperformer. Avoiding a few common mistakes will help you keep employees on track. When you do have an underachiever despite everything, a good plan of action can help you turn the situation around.

3 Common Mistakes to Avoid

For many managers, trying to solve the problem of an underachieving employee is the challenge they most dread. There are three common mistakes that even otherwise good managers often make: waiting too long, being unclear about goals, and overestimating abilities.

Mistake 1: Waiting too long.

A poor review or sudden termination should never be the first time an employee hears that his or her performance is lacking. Waiting too long—indeed, waiting at all—to tell an employee that he or she isn't meeting expectations is a failure of the manager, not the employee. Catching an employee off guard is not only unfair to the employee, but also not in the best interest of the business. Hiring and training new employees is expensive and can be disruptive to the rhythm of the business.

Managers who wait too long to confront an underperformer typically do so because they're hesitant or even afraid to have an uncomfortable conversation with the employee or because they've neglected the employee. If you're in such a situation, ask your organization's HR department to help you figure out the best way to have the conversation. Most underperforming employees already realize that they're not living up to expectations, so the conversation usually isn't a surprise. By delaying the discussion, however, you let the employee think that his or her performance is at least minimally acceptable. If you wait until the employee's annual review to convey your disappointment, for example, the employee will likely be demoralized and distrustful, and those feelings will make recovery more difficult.

Mistake 2: Being unclear about goals and deliverables.

Although communication is a two-way street, it's your responsibility as the manager to ensure that you and the employee are on the same page with respect to goals and deliverables. Employees often become underperformers not because they're not doing good work, but because they're doing the wrong work. This is a particularly difficult situation because the employee thinks that he or she is doing well, and co-workers will reinforce that notion. But if the employee isn't performing the job as it's defined, he or she is underperforming. In this situation, the manager usually either hasn't established clear goals and deliverables or hasn't properly tracked the work that the employee is doing toward those goals.

Mistake 3: Overestimating an employee's abilities.

Sometimes an employee is just in over his or her head. Such employees are often reticent about their struggles. The employee continues to work hard, but in the end, performance isn't about how the employee spends time or how hard he or she works, but rather about what is accomplished. These situations typically occur because the manager isn't sufficiently knowledgeable about the employee's experience or skills.

5 Steps for Managing Underperforming Employees

Although avoiding the common problems can help you ensure that employees don't become poor performers, you'll still occasionally have an underachiever. The more quickly you intervene when an employee isn't performing up to expectations, the better your chances of resolving the situation. Here are five steps for transforming an underperformer into a strong asset to your organization.

Step 1: Start a conversation with the employee about performance.

As soon as you see that an employee isn't meeting set goals or isn't meeting expectations, sit down with him or her to discuss the situation. Don't wait. Be prepared with specifics about how the employee is underperforming, what good performance looks like, and how you measure it.

During the discussion, be sensitive to how the employee it taking the news. Some will be afraid that you're going to fire them and others will be in denial, but most will already know.

Step 2: Determine why the employee is underperforming.

Employees underperform for many reasons. Sometimes the reasons are entirely unrelated to work; for example, the employee might be having trouble coping with difficulties in his or her home life. Other reasons might be directly related to work, such as not following through on commitments.

Determining the reason for the underperformance is critical in redesigning the employee's work plan so that he or she can be successful. For example, an employee might perform subquality work because he or she lacks the skills necessary to meet goals. In that scenario, providing more time to complete tasks won't help solve the problem. However, extending deadlines might be the perfect remedy for someone who hasn't prioritized work properly and simply needs additional time to catch up.

Step 3: Set clear, measurable goals.

Revisit the employee's goals and rework them to be clear and easily measurable. As objectively as possible, define success and excellence for the employee. To remember the classic rubric for establishing clear goals, just think SMART: Goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. For each goal, create interim goals and checkpoints so you can provide the employee with actionable feedback for improvement.

Step 4: Create an action plan for accomplishing goals.

After you and the employee have agreed on goals, discuss plans for accomplishing them. If you think the employee isn't using the best approach or is uncertain of how to meet the goals, suggest alternative action plans.

Step 5: Celebrate successes both large and small.

When employees hear that their performance isn't up to par, they almost always become demoralized. In addition to helping them get back on track, you need to rebuild their confidence. When the employee shows improvement or reaches an interim goal, take time to celebrate the success, however small.

A celebration can range from verbal confirmation and high fives to small rewards. Something as simple as taking the employee to lunch in recognition of an accomplishment will positively reinforce the desirable behavior and will go a long way to building the employee's confidence.

High Stakes, Big Rewards

Unless you work in the corporate equivalent of Lake Wobegon, you'll have employees who don't perform as well as you expect them to. As a manager, one of your most important responsibilities is to recognize when an employee is underperforming and immediately intervene. Turning an employee from an underperformer to an achiever, or even a star, will take work on your part, but it might well be the most fulfilling accomplishment of your career.

About the Author(s)

Ben Smith

Sign up for the ITPro Today newsletter
Stay on top of the IT universe with commentary, news analysis, how-to's, and tips delivered to your inbox daily.

You May Also Like