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How to manage poor performance in 5 steps

July 22, 2022 - 18 min read

manager giving feedback on poor performance

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What is poor performance?

Examples of poor performance

What are the causes of poor performance?

Identifying poor performance

How to tackle poor performance

Becoming a new manager can be one of the toughest transitions of your career. Besides leading a team, you also need to learn how to manage poor performance with your direct reports. 

Even if you’ve been managing teams for years, coaching poor performance is a unique skill set that takes a lot of practice. The good news? It’s something that you can learn. 

We’re here to help you with a real-life example of what it looks like to manage poor performance at work. Plus, we’ll share what poor employee performance is, the causes, and exactly how you can tackle it confidently as a manager or leader.

What is poor performance?

By definition, poor work performance occurs when an employee fails to fulfill the expectations or responsibilities of their job. An employee may also be underperforming if they don’t reach their goals or hit certain milestones in a given time period. 

Performance problems can also be related to how an employee engages with or behaves on their team. Basically, poor performance at work is anything from consistently arriving late, to forgetting crucial tasks, to causing conflict with their coworkers.

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Examples of poor performance

Unsatisfactory performance at work can harm the productivity and morale of your entire team. Even if they’re unintentional, office mistakes must be addressed.  Here are a few examples to demonstrate what poor performance looks like in the workplace: 

  • Never on time: whether it’s a meeting or a deadline, poorly performing employees are never able to meet expectations when it comes to time. 
  • Negative attitude: instead of collaborating with team members and taking on new projects with a positive attitude, employees complain and cause conflict. 
  • Failure to accomplish tasks: whether it’s because they have a lack of ability, or are just lazy, underperforming employees simply don’t get things done. 
  • Unable to take feedback: when you share feedback to help your employees improve, they don’t take it into account and ultimately, make the same mistakes repeatedly. 
  • Lack of attention to detail: whether it’s failing to reply to important emails or missing steps when completing projects, employees seem to have their heads in the clouds, rather than focusing on their work.

Managing an employee’s poor performance: a real-world example 

Here’s an example of poor performance that I faced with one of my coaching clients. 

Imani was promoted to a manager role earlier this year. Her team of 5 has been doing really well, with one exception, Juliette. Juliette’s work isn’t meeting Imani’s expectations. Her work is rushed, submissions are full of errors, and it’s often submitted late. 

Imani has tried to give Juliette feedback, but while Juliette fixes the performance issues Imani calls out, she doesn’t seem to be incorporating the feedback into following assignments, which often have similar problems. Juliette’s work isn’t improving, despite Imani’s consistent feedback.

Imani has started thinking about letting her go, but she worries that she hasn’t done enough to help Juliette improve. She wants to be fair to Juliette, and also wants to be fair to the rest of her team and succeed as a new manager. Imani needs to learn how to manage Juliette’s poor performance.

employee meeting with their manager about poor performance

What are the causes of poor performance?  

Before you can address performance problems, it’s a good idea to understand the root cause. Every employee is different, and poor performance can come from anywhere. 

That said, here are some of the most common causes of poor performance at work: 

  • Problems in their personal life: We all know that whether you’re exhausted from taking care of your kids or suffering from medical problems, it can have a big impact on your work. If life is getting in the way, perhaps you and your employee can work together to find a temporary solution until the personal problem is resolved. 
  • Burnout or other well-being problems: It can be tough to maintain a work-life balance. If burnout is causing your employee’s performance issues, you’ll need a unique approach to coach them through it while providing the support they need to recover
  • Workplace conflict: Often, a conflict between coworkers is subtle — but even if it’s not obvious, it can create stress, distraction, and frustration for the individuals involved. That inevitably leads to poor performance. The good news? Conflict, if handled well, can actually be productive
  • Skill gaps: Maybe your employee has been assigned a responsibility they have no idea how to handle, but they’re afraid to admit they need help. They try to figure it out on their own, but what they really need is a manager to provide training and guidance.
  • Lack of motivation: Sometimes, employees just aren’t motivated enough to care about their work. Maybe they believe their work won’t make an impact, so why put in the effort? They could also feel overwhelmed, unclear on their responsibilities, or just plain bored. All this can reduce their motivation to perform.

Identifying poor performance

Chances are, you’ll recognize poor performance when you see it. That said, it may take some intentional observation to separate a pattern of poor performance from the occasional workplace mistake. 

No one can be perfect all the time, so here are a few questions to ask yourself when identifying poor performance among your team members: 

  • Has an employee failed to accomplish their goals for a month or more at a time? Missing one goal makes sense, but if it’s consistent, that’s a red flag. 
  • Is the quality of work they submit consistently subpar, or was it just one assignment? 
  • Do they fail to finish tasks, meet deadlines, and communicate? Are they consistently holding up your team’s ability to get work done by not fulfilling their own responsibilities?
  • Do they have a pattern of conflict with their coworkers or leadership? Or did you just see one out-of-character disagreement? 
  • Do they respond positively to feedback, making changes right away when you ask? Or do they become defensive and fail to implement constructive criticism?

two women meeting to talk about poor performance

How to tackle poor performance 

Starting a performance management process can be intimidating. It’s never fun to criticize someone, or worse, fire them if they can’t make the improvements you need. 

We’re here to help you with the ultimate step-by-step guide for tackling poor employee performance:

  1. Prepare for an emotional response 
  2. Address the problem face-to-face
  3. Involve human resources early on 
  4. Make a plan for success 
  5. Follow up and make tough decisions when you need to

Now let’s dive a little deeper into each of these steps. 

1. Prepare for an emotional response 

Before any difficult conversation, you should practice — and be prepared for anything.  

Let’s go back to the example of Imani and Juliette. As a manager approaching a conversation about performance, Imani should be prepared for a strong reaction. Imani knows Juliette, but this kind of conversation is never easy.

  • What will Imani do if Juliette denies all her performance problems?
  • What if she starts to cry?
  • What if she gets angry? Or shows no emotion at all?

If your direct report becomes too emotional to continue the conversation, take a break. However, always come back to the discussion. Don’t abandon the conversation because it is difficult. 

2. Address the problem face-to-face 

Once Imani has pinpointed exactly what Juliette’s performance problems are, she should sit down face-to-face with Juliette (even if it’s via a Zoom call). Imani will need to be upfront and factual when communicating that Juliette’s work is not meeting her expectations. 

Wondering where to begin? Try an opening statement like, “Juliette, we’ve had this conversation a number of times, about [these specific errors], and we’re still seeing them. Help me understand what’s preventing you from doing this work in a way that meets expectations.”

Once you’ve started the conversation, here are some tips to make it as successful as possible: 

  • Avoid the “compliment sandwich” technique. Some people try to soften the blow of negative feedback by doing this, but it can actually distract from your main message. People often choose to hear the good stuff and ignore the bad.
  • Take on a coaching role. Ask lots of questions to understand if performance issues go deeper than the surface level. The best managers coach employees — they don’t just expect employees to figure out a solution alone. 
  • Listen actively. A frank conversation can often reveal new information, so listen to your teammate closely. This will give them the space they need to voice their own concerns, which can then help you create a strategy to improve their performance. 

3. Involve human resources early

As a coach, I am a believer in getting an HR business partner involved early when it comes to performance problems. For example, Imani, a new manager, would need to understand the company’s policies to properly deal with poor performance. An HR partner can really help here. 

If Juliette has all the skills and support she needs and is just not performing, Imani may have to go down the performance improvement plan route. An HR partner will be very helpful in making sure that’s done correctly. For instance, HR can help determine the right amount of time to correct the issue. Whatever the cause of non-performance, HR is a great source of support. 

4. Make a plan for success

Now, it’s time to create a strategy that will help your employees improve their performance. With the right plan and a good coach (you!), you can see underperforming workers begin to thrive again. 

Here are the most important components of a plan to improve poor performance: 

  • Set clear expectations: Make sure that employees understand exactly what they’re supposed to be doing differently. Put it in writing so that they know what they’re striving towards. 
  • Address skills gaps: Are there specific skills that the employee is lacking? Do they need retraining? Is there a learning pathway that could help them upskill and improve performance?  Decide on concrete actions that your employee can take, and make sure they actually follow through. 
  • Review overall job fit: If an employee doesn’t have the right technical skills for their current job description, how are their other skills? If they’re a great team player and company culture fit, you might be able to find a better role for them within your organization.

5.  Follow-up, and be ready to make a tough decision if needed

Once you’ve created a bulletproof strategy to help your employee improve their performance, make sure you check in regularly. If you don’t see changes, you’ll need to start asking some tough questions. 

For example, does your employee have all the right skills but is just not getting the job done? If so, additional training won’t help improve performance, and it might be time to consider termination. That’s never the call you want to make as a manager, but the best leaders know how and when to make difficult decisions. 

In the long term, even if it comes down to termination, everyone will benefit — your employee will find a role that’s better suited to their skill set, and your organization will be able to hire someone that’s a better fit for the team. 

Improving motivation by creating a sense of purpose 

So now you know how to manage poor performance with your team. Before we wrap up though, we wanted to share one unique strategy for improving performance. Did you know that employees who feel a sense of purpose at work tend to be far more engaged and motivated to perform

Gallup research shows that when employees are connected to an organization’s mission or purpose, it reduces employee turnover — and improves profitability. Employees need to feel a sense of ownership over their work, and they need to see how it makes an impact beyond their day-to-day. 

So how can you improve your team’s motivation and help them feel a greater sense of purpose at work? You need to make things personal: 

  • Have conversations with your team about what matters to them, what they value on a personal level, and how that connects to the company’s mission. 
  • Help them see how their personal strengths and daily responsibilities can make a real difference in the world and in the organization. 
  • Connect team goals and individual projects to the company’s bigger purpose, and talk about how each of these drive real impact.

These actions can help you create a high-performance culture. Employees will feel a true sense of purpose, and as a result, will be motivated to do their best work. 

Improving poor performance

Managing poor performance is a critical skill to learn. It’s always tough, but it does get easier. If you can help a team member get on track and be successful in their role, you’ll feel an incredible sense of accomplishment. 

To do it well, you’ll need open and honest communication and a positive, empathetic attitude. You’ll also need patience and courage to have difficult conversations

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Published July 22, 2022

Donna Aldrich

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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