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Managing Underperformance

    Wouldn’t it be a workplace dream come true if every employee was a natural high-performer and you could kick back without worrying about performance improvement headaches? Go ahead, dream for a moment of that utopian work environment. 

    Let’s face it, dealing with underperformers can be frustrating, time-consuming, and might even make you wonder why you signed up for this manager gig in the first place. But when you help employees reach their full potential with your coaching and guidance, you’re hitting the bullseye of your managerial mission. It’s incredibly rewarding to be part of an employee’s growth journey. So, don’t lose sight of that.

    The reality is, managing underperformance can gobble up your precious time. You’ve got to decide where to invest your energy and how much. Wasting effort on those who don’t want to improve or simply can’t is as senseless as watering a dead plant. Let’s explore how to turn things around!

    The Inverted Pyramid

    Time to turn the tables on the common missteps in handling underperformers. The inverted pyramid means that most of your time and effort is funneled towards those who are not performing.:

    Low performers end up devouring the lion’s share of your precious minutes. As a manager, you’ve got an endless list of priorities and the clock ticking against you. When you set a dedicated hour to juggle coaching, feedback, development, and more, it’s tempting to focus only on those who are veering off course or struggling with their job. But the pyramid needs to flip, or at least even out. Why, you ask?

    Performance management is more than just playing firefighter for underperformers. It’s an ongoing process that involves a variety of actions: clarifying expectations, training, support, feedback, development, and dishing out recognition. All these pieces of the puzzle come together to help employees reach their full potential. But when these activities are missing or inconsistent, the result is a bunch of disengaged, undervalued employees. And guess what? That’s a one-way ticket to becoming an ex-employee.

    Nothing is worse than getting blindsided when a good employee leaves you, and you were not aware they were dissatisfied. It means you were not paying attention.

    Cherishing Your Champions

    Never assume your top performers are self-sufficient superhumans who don’t need your care and attention. Spend time understanding what makes them tick, their aspirations, and whether they’re eager to tackle special projects or play the role of a mentor. Discover what they cherish about their work, and make it a habit to seek their input regularly. Keep the feedback loop alive, and let recognition be their daily bread. These employees are pure gold in your treasure trove.

    Mid-level performers are no less important. Spend ample time on their growth, development, and retention. These steady Sams are the unsung heroes who hold down the fort and often become your loyal long-term teammates. They’re like the silver that needs polishing to continue shining.

    Your top and steady performers? They’re the employees that make you and your business succeed, the irreplaceable people you need to retain and grow. So, here’s a thought: How incredible could your team be if you showered them with more attention and focused on retaining their talent? However, to prioritize what really matters, you must tackle underperformance without letting it suck up all your precious resources. Let’s dive into how to do just that. 

    Dealing with Underperformance

    First and foremost, tackle underperformance swiftly.  In one of my previous workplaces, the norm was to wait for two years of Below Expectations ratings before showing an employee the exit door. Two whole years! Now, there might not be a one-size-fits-all magic formula for timing, but trust me, two years is an eternity in this game.

    While you’re dragging your heels addressing underperformance, here’s what’s unfolding within your workgroup:

    • Other employees are picking up the slack and burning out.
    • Workplace collaboration is taking a nosedive.
    • Your effectiveness as a leader is being questioned.
    • Real success? It’s just a fleeting thought.

    But enough about the problem, let’s dive into the solutions.

    How to Deal with Underperformance

    I’d recommend kicking things off by checking out the post titled Three Essential Leadership Tools, as a starting point. Once you’ve absorbed those insights, come on back, and let’s continue down this path.

    Start with a Self Check-In

    Who, me? Yep, it’s time to grab that mirror, my friend. I’ve witnessed numerous cases where a previously high-performing employee spiraled into underperformance under new management, and vice versa. There could be multiple reasons for this, like differing expectations or management styles, levels of support, and perceptions. I know it’s not the easiest question to ask yourself, but here it is:


    • Are my expectations reasonable? How do I know?
    • Do I see potential in employees or perceive them as burdens?
    • Am I providing sufficient support, and have I confirmed this with employees?
    • Have I labeled or judged an employee?
    • Do I compare one employee to another, or see them as unique individuals?
    • What message do my words and actions send to employees?

    Once you’re confident that you’re not standing in the way of your employees’ success, move on to the basics.

    The Basics

    The basics are the foundational activities within the standard performance management cycle. If you want to dive deeper into these concepts, you can check out the post on performance management for a comprehensive guide. Once you cover all the basics, if a performance issue still lingers, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and dig deeper.

    Finding the Roots

    Now it’s time to grab that metaphorical spotlight, don your clear lenses, and get to the root cause. To pinpoint the issue, start by documenting it in factual, non-biased terms. Think of it as painting a picture of what needs improvement. It can be helpful to refer back to role standards and expectations, providing a clear framework. Here are a few examples to illustrate what this might look like:

    Now, if the problem isn’t tied to a performance measure but rather stems from a lousy attitude, you might want to check out the article on dealing with toxic employees. Once you’ve got a crystal-clear understanding of the performance issue itself, we can move on to unraveling the ‘why’ behind it.

    Skill or Will – Unlocking the Puzzle of Underperformance

    Here’s the million-dollar question: is the underperformance due to a lack of skill or a lack of will? Let’s break it down, starting with skill.


    Set aside all your preconceived notions and base your assessment on cold, hard facts. Here are some key points to consider:

    ❓Was the employee given sufficient and suitable training? Remember, everyone learns at their own pace and has different learning styles. Just because Sally and Bob completed the same training program doesn’t mean they’re on the same knowledge level. Embrace the variety in learning styles and duration.

    ❓Is the employee aware of their development area? Provide your employee with a list of skill sets needed to do the job and ask them which areas they believe need more development. You might find that an employee thinks they’re doing a stellar job, and the issue might simply be a lack of awareness.

    Once you’ve pinpointed specific skill gaps, it’s time to craft a development plan. After communicating and agreeing upon the plan make sure to take a step back and let the employee work their way through it. I’ve seen managers exhaust countless hours trying to push, pull, and drag an employee towards improvement. In the end, it often results in a grueling and unproductive year, with the employee eventually leaving and the cleanup commencing.

    Have the employee take the lead in the plan. Help them through it by prompts.

    ❓What training will you review? What resources will you use? What else might help you develop this skill? How will you measure progress? How much time is needed?

    There might even be an opportunity for a top performer to step in as a mentor.

    Establish a specific timeline, follow-up plan, clear expectations for learning outcomes, and consequences. Break the timeline into bite-sized chunks with short timeframes. You want to witness progress within a week, two weeks, or a month at most.

    Your role here is to follow up, test the work, observe, ask questions, and provide feedback. Make it abundantly clear that the employee must take ownership of their learning. They’re the ones who aren’t performing up to par, and they must put in the effort to retain their job. You’re there to support their endeavors, but they must be the driving force.

    Dealing with Cognitive Ability

    Occasionally, you’ll come across situations where an employee struggles with cognitive skills, especially when the work doesn’t align with their strengths. It’s not about intelligence; it’s about whether they’re in a role that suits their cognitive abilities. At this point, if you realize that an employee doesn’t have the cognitive capacity for their role, it’s time for a career discussion. While this conversation might be difficult, struggling in an ill-suited job can be extremely stressful and demotivating. Approach it with the intent to help, and things will go more smoothly.

    I’ve had several of these discussions during my career. Each employee reacts differently initially. Some will resist and insist they can perform; others are more receptive. Either way, the long-term result is always good when they land in a place they can excel.


    Now, let’s tackle the tougher nut to crack: WILL.  Some employees will string you along with promises. They step it up a bit to give you hope, then revert to their old, slacking ways. These employees know they don’t want to do the job, but they don’t want you to know that.

    WILL is about whether the employee is genuinely invested in their role and willing to develop necessary skills and perform required activities. It’s easy for people to claim they lacked training or that their manager was unsupportive. If you have done your groundwork, do not fall into the unsupported trap. Once you make it clear the employee needs to take ownership of their development, with your support, you will quickly discover whether they’re willing to make the effort.

    There is simply no reason to invest time in an employee who will not invest time in themselves. People often talk a big game about wanting to improve and learn, but when it comes to showing it through their actions, they tend to fall short. They certainly would like you to put in the effort, but let’s not play that game.

    Flush out Willingness

    It’s time for a potentially difficult conversation.  In this discussion, you unearth the root cause of the problem and whether the employee intends to change. Make your expectations clear and communicate consequences if necessary. Here are some sample questions to guide this discussion:

    • What level of performance would you like to achieve?
    • When an employee expresses a desire to improve their performance, you might respond with something like, “I’m confident that you’re fully capable of performing at that level. What’s standing in the way?” Or “How do you plan to achieve that? What needs to change from what you’re doing now?”
    • When an employee claims they need more support: What additional support do you require? How long do you anticipate needing this level of support? What changes should I expect to see when that support is provided?

    Make it clear to the employee you will not tolerate a lack of effort.

    How Much Time Should You Invest?

    The old saying “time is money” holds true in managing underperformance. It makes sense to invest your valuable time in someone when you see genuine effort and steady progress. I’ve seen some of my best employees take a bit longer to hit their stride, but the key here is that they consistently put in the effort.

    When the issue revolves around skill development, it’s essential to provide the opportunity for learning and growth. If an employee manages most of what they need but struggles in one area, consider whether you can tailor their job to better suit their strengths. An employee who gives their best and maintains the right attitude is likely to transform into a steady performer and a loyal employee when provided with the right opportunities.

    However, when you identify a cognitive learning gap, deal with it quickly. Trying to force someone through a learning curve they’ll never grasp is a recipe for wasted time. Let’s avoid unnecessary pain for everyone involved and acknowledge that sometimes the only way to move forward is to move on. Moving on may mean a different role or sometimes a different door.

    I understand that it’s tough to deal with someone who has good intentions and is trying their best. However, perpetually wrestling with underperformance is demotivating for everyone involved. Your role is to guide your employee toward a happier and healthier work life, even if it means making difficult decisions.

    Now, when the issue is a matter of will, you should spend minimal time. Engage in a few tough conversations and be clear about the consequences. There’s no room in any business for an employee who’s unwilling to do their job.  It’s time to stop watering the dead plant.

    Performance Improvement Plans

    If you find that a formal performance improvement plan is necessary, reach out to your HR department if you’re fortunate enough to have one.  For those without HR support, you can create a plan from a template.

    When implementing a formal plan, it needs to lead to quick improvement or an exit strategy. Break the required outcomes into bite-sized chunks and keep the time frame short. I suggest a maximum of three months.  Ensure that the expected results are clearly outlined, along with the consequences of not meeting those expectations

    Follow up, Feedback, Follow through – The Three ‘F’s of Progress

    Remember, a performance improvement plan becomes a useless piece of paper unless you use it to take action. It should be a roadmap to progress.

    • Dedicate time each week for follow-up, recording employee progress in detail.
    • Provide feedback, highlighting what the employee did well, what needs to continue, what still requires improvement..
    • Document all discussions and detail specific outcomes and actions at each stage.
    • Follow through with the consequences you’ve communicated. This step is super important to maintain the integrity of the plan and uphold standards!  


    Your role in performance management is to allow for the opportunity to grow and learn. Also, to determine whether employees are in a role that is suited to their capabilities, in some cases tweaking their job to play to their strengths. In addition to workplace training, encourage employee self-awareness and development of habits for success.

    • Flip the pyramid, giving your top and steady performers the attention they deserve
    • Navigate the skill-will dilemma when tackling underperformance.
    • Time is a precious resource, invest it wisely, recognizing the need for support and opportunities, or sometimes, a change in direction.
    • Formal performance improvement plans are not just paperwork; they’re a commitment to progress, guided by follow-ups, feedback, and unwavering follow-through.


    For a quick reference, you can access a tip summary for this post here.

    Ponder Points

    Self-awareness is the cornerstone of effective leadership and personal growth. Let’s explore six thought-provoking questions to help you internalize and apply the wisdom shared in this post.

    Are any of my actions getting in the way of employee performance?

    Do I allocate my time and resources effectively when managing underperformance, or do I find myself drawn into the “low performer” trap?

    How well do I know and understand my top and steady performers’ aspirations, values, and preferences within their roles? Do I actively seek their input and provide regular feedback and recognition?

    Do I tend to attribute underperformance solely to a lack of skill, or do I consider the employee’s willingness and commitment to improvement? How can I better balance these factors in my management approach?

    Am I aware of the time I invest in underperforming employees and whether it aligns with their effort and progress? How can I adapt my approach?

    When it comes to implementing formal performance improvement plans, am I diligent in my follow-up, feedback, and follow-through? What steps can I take to ensure that these plans result in meaningful progress and alignment with organizational goals?

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