How to Turn an Underperformer Into One of Your Strongest Employees

by / ⠀Entrepreneurship Startup Advice / May 24, 2019
Need to transform a low performer?

When your co-worker underperforms, you have the option of looking the other way. But when you’re the team leader, you’re in a different position.

As a manager, you’re expected to deal effectively with underperformers — either by letting them go or helping them improve. Easier said than done, right? However, with the proper mix of patience, guidance, and tact, you can manage your direct reports to success and avoid the spread of toxic underperformance to other workers.

Recognizing the Many Shapes of Workplace Underperformance

The low performance of some employees is quite evident, such as not fulfilling work assignments or only doing half the job. Other examples of subpar performance may be harder to pinpoint. For instance, is the person who routinely grumbles but executes on responsibilities an underperformer or just a capable co-worker with a snarky attitude?

In your supervisory role, you’ll need to use your best judgment to gauge what passes for satisfactory performance at your company. A general rule of thumb is that failing to meet agreed-upon expectations, skirting corporate policies, and exhibiting negative behaviors all fall in the category of underperformance.

Although the signs of underperformance are relatively easy to spot, their underlying causes are not. An underperformer might actually be responding to a lack of upward mobility in the organization. Or he could be burdened by personal stress or repetitive, monotonous duties. Take time to find out the underlying cause for each individual so you can proceed with understanding.

Regardless of the reason behind an employee’s underperformance, you have choices when it comes to taking charge of the situation. Use these recommendations to address and remedy any problems of underperformance among your direct reports.

1. Find out whether the underperformer is ready to call it quits.

Sometimes, an employer-employee relationship just isn’t the right fit anymore. Still, it can be tough for a worker to take a career risk and leave. Ask underperformers the tough question: “Do you still want to work here?” Make sure they understand that wanting to move on isn’t a crime.

Amazon believes not only in keeping happy, engaged workers on board, but also in incentivizing dissatisfied ones to go. Annually, the e-commerce giant offers some of its staff members up to $5,000 if they leave. The only catch? They can never work for Amazon again. Seem radical? It’s the best way to make sure workers are devoted to your cause, according to Michael Burchell, a workplace culture expert. “If you choose to actually not take the money and you choose to stay, it means that you’re committed to the organization and committed to your work,” he says. “It helps to frame the employer/employee bargain or that psychological contract.”

Not sure you want to offer a big bonus to an underperformer who wants to quit? Provide another incentive, such as a glowing letter of recommendation or gap insurance to cover her during her job search, with the caveat that you expect her to do her best work until she leaves.

2. Become the micromanager you never wanted to be.

When you took on a leadership role, you probably vowed never to become a dreaded micromanager. Now, you may have to rethink your promise, particularly if you want your underperformers to change.

Micromanagement isn’t all bad, as long as you temper and customize this much-maligned managerial strategy. Speaker, author, and CEO coach Krister Ungerböck suggests changing your point of view to embrace helpful aspects of micromanagement under certain circumstances. “For high-performance talent, micromanaging seems rather Big Brother-ish because it wastes time and energy,” he notes. But what happens when the work isn’t up to snuff, and the employee doesn’t know how to fix it? “In that case, micromanagement — when implemented correctly — might be a way to set parameters to help him succeed, not to punish him.”

For example, why not set up a series of expected check-ins with your underperforming employee? These touchpoints allow you to see whether work is being done and to help him overcome early stumbling blocks. You don’t have to hound your employee every second of the day to keep an eye on his progress and output quality, but regular meetings will ensure that a project doesn’t veer too far off track. Think of it like parenting: If you give a child three outfit choices, he experiences independence — despite the boundaries you’ve established.

3. Leverage the underperformer’s core strengths.

Resist the temptation to view your underperforming employee as somehow intrinsically flawed. All workers bring strengths to the table. Uncover your employee’s strong points to redirect her energies toward positive change.

Gallup studies have shown that managers, not just employees, play an enormous role in workplace engagement. Therefore, you probably have the chance to make a big impact on your workers’ future performance if you help them name and exploit their strengths. For 90 percent of teams using strengths interventions, Gallup saw up to 15 percent improvement in employee engagement and an up to 29 percent boost in profits.

Place yourself in the position of coach. Get to know your underperformers better, and help them leverage their innate skill sets. For instance, you may discover that your lackluster customer service representative has a natural penchant for problem-solving. In that case, giving her more power to generate troubleshooting ideas — that could benefit the whole team — could boost her engagement level as well.

Stop seeing underperformers as bad, as beyond help, or as the people you’ll have to fire next week. Instead, guide them to achieve their potential through some smart managerial techniques.

About The Author

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Editor in Chief of Under30CEO. I have a passion for helping educate the next generation of leaders.

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