Challenging underperformance in the workplace

Mark BW McDermott from Prosell outlines how to challenge underperformance in the workplace successfully.

As a manager, there is no upside to ignoring an employee who is not performing to the required level. The situation is unlikely to improve without intervention and the team as a whole will not thank you for overlooking the issue. So it is important that your frontline managers have the confidence and skills to quickly tackle these problems as they arise.

Ignore the problem at your peril
Get the Moose on the table!

If you have clearly communicated the team’s objectives and the role of each individual in achieving these goals, everybody should know in advance what behaviour and contribution is expected. Prolonged underperformance can affect team morale: group targets are harder to achieve which can impact on their rewards and other incentives.


Get to the root cause of the issue
The first step is to do your research and get to the root of a problem. Was there an oversight with the initial recruitment process leading to the employee’s inappropriate placement?  Are they clear about what is expected of them and the required levels of performance? 

Look to yourself - perhaps it’s your behaviour causing the employee to underperform?  Or has a private issue or personality clash at work resulted in a noticeably diminished performance?

You’ve done your homework before your meeting, right?
Do you have a clear picture of where the employee is falling down and areas in which they are performing well? For example, they might routinely miss deadlines for reports, but the quality of their work, once delivered, is extremely good. Being objective about the issues is critical rather than prescriptive about solutions.

Tackle the behaviour, not the person
Now you are ready for a frank and open conversation with the employee. Outline the issues then listen to their response. Repeat back, summarise, test your understanding to ensure you can articulate the employee’s situation and their point of view. Is it a skill or a will challenge? Ask them for their suggestions on how to improve their performance.

Your objective is to get the employee to recognise that there is a problem and to show a willingness to try to improve. Reassure them that they will have your support and if appropriate that of the company.

However, if the employee refuses to accept that they are underperforming, that’s when a potential ‘tough conversation’ may need to happen discussing the consequences of what this stance now means for them. Ensure you follow your internal HR processes as redeployment or termination may be necessary.

Make a plan
Once the underperformance has been recognised by the employee you are both going places. Now you can discuss possible solutions – make a development plan, with an agreed timeline; use the SMART approach.This could include a range of supporting measures such as additional training, more regular coaching sessions, help with prioritising projects, peer mentoring etc. The key is to get the employee up to scratch and performing well.

Regular reviews
It is essential to stick to the plan, so schedule in regular review dates. Keep these reviews short and concise. Be specific and constructive with feedback, support where you can and celebrate any successes.

Don’t be afraid to take action
If eventually, it becomes obvious that the employee cannot or will not improve their performance, take decisive action. Talk to HR if appropriate and develop a plan either for redeployment to a more suitable position or the termination of their contract.

Whilst never easy, getting an employee back on track is a rewarding experience. Good for the employee, good for the team, the customer and good for you as a manager.

Managing people up not out, is a far more effective approach to underperformance, don’t you think?

If you would like to discuss introducing or improving the workplace coaching skills of your frontline managers, so that they feel confident to challenge underperformance in their teams, please do get in touch. We would love to hear from you.

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