10 Do’s and Don’ts of Dealing With An Underperforming Employee


If you’re in a leadership position at work, one of the greatest factors that determine your effectiveness as a leader is your ability to help underperforming employees improve.

People underperform for a whole host of different reasons that may or may not be within your control. Regardless, your priority as a leader is to help them get back on track.


Your reactions and behavior in this regard can go a long way in winning you their respect and loyalty as well as that of the entire team’s, or it could go the other way. Here are the ten do’s and don’ts of dealing with an underperforming employee.

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1. Do practice empathy


If the roles were reversed and it was you who was the underperforming employee having to face the music, would you prefer to have a boss who leads The Apprentice-style or one who leads with empathy?


Research clearly shows that the most effective leaders are the ones who are the most empathetic. The key to knowing the best way to help an underperforming employee out is to put yourself in their shoes so you can understand their perspectives and challenges on the job.

When you speak to them about their underperformance, for instance, they might not be willing to open up about the reasons for it right away. Listening actively to them could help you pick up on specific tell-tale cues that give away what the root cause is even if they’re not saying it out loud.

If they feel psychologically safe around you, they’ll be more willing to devote all of their resources towards improving themselves.


2. Do be honest


Leading with empathy doesn’t require you to sugarcoat. In communicating with an underperforming employee, you need to be clear about exactly how they’re underperforming and the consequences of it on themselves, on the team, and on you as a leader. In that regard, it’s useful to follow the SBI model (Situation, Behaviour, Impact).

If they come away from the conversation not understanding how they’re underperforming or even that they’re underperforming at all, nothing is going to change.


3. Do foster ownership


When you’ve got an underperforming employee on your hands, it’s vital that you allow them to take ownership of their performance instead of spoonfeeding them with solutions. Doing that will only cripple their abilities to problem-solve and think on their feet in the long term.

Once you’ve established with them that something has to be done about the issue, invite them to think of targeted strategies for self-improvement, and guide them through the process.

For example, if the cause of their underperformance is bad time management, get them to think about how they can approach their workflow more systematically to prioritise between tasks and re-allocate their time when needed.



4. Do maintain accountability


After establishing the problem and working out a solution together, you need to hold them accountable for it. Follow up regularly with them to check on their progress and ask if they’re encountering any obstacles to improvement.

The frequency of these follow-ups depends mostly on the situation. In some cases, weekly follow-ups are sufficient, whereas others require daily check-ins.



5. Do provide specific feedback


As you check in on their improvement, it’s essential not just to provide regular feedback, but to be specific while doing so. If they’re making good progress, you need to recognise it and show appreciation for it. When praising them, specify what exactly is praiseworthy about their efforts, for instance, “I noticed you’ve introduced a new system to make sure you get a bird’s eye view of all your ongoing projects. Good job on that.”

Conversely, if they’re making little to no progress, it’s even more vital that you encourage them while letting them know precisely where their efforts are falling short. This way, you’re furnishing them with practical advice and reinforcing their self-efficacy at the same time.



6. Don’t lose your temper


Whatever happens, the worst way you could react is by being unable to keep your emotions under control. No matter how frustrated or disappointed you may be, it’s crucial that you practice good emotional intelligence skills and remain self-aware and self-regulatory.

You do not want to end up saying or doing the wrong things in the heat of the moment that would only worsen your employee’s performance. If and when necessary, take a step back and remove yourself temporarily from the situation so that you can calm yourself down and ensure that you stay level-headed and rational at all times instead of letting your emotions get the better of you.



7. Don’t make it personal


In dealing with an underperforming employee, it’s your responsibility to demonstrate professionalism through committing yourself to a task-oriented growth mindset. Ground your communication with the employee in a specific behavior of theirs that needs to be changed and don’t make it personal by insulting, humiliating, or ridiculing them.

That also necessitates that you don’t allow yourself or the employee to play the blame game and start faulting everyone under the sun for the underperformance. Instead of harping on the past unnecessarily, concentrate on moving forward productively.



8. Don’t assume you’ve done enough


Too many leaders treat underperformance as the sole responsibility of the employee. As you work through the root causes and solutions with your employee, be open to recognising that you may have unknowingly contributed to the problem yourself.

If the underperformance is rooted in your employee’s lack of skills or abilities, ask yourself if you’ve provided what they needed to produce good work.

Do they need training? Was their onboarding process lacking? Are their assignments forcing them to focus on their weaknesses instead of capitalising on their strengths? Were the expectations for performance communicated to them well enough from the start?



9. Don’t throw out threats unnecessarily


Threatening to fire them an underperforming employee right from the get-go is counterproductive.

Again, psychological safety in the workplace is the most significant determinant of job performance. Your people need to know that you’re on their side and that they’re your number one priority. If they understand that, they won’t hesitate to pull out all the stops to overdeliver and keep outdoing themselves.

If they feel constantly threatened around you, though, it encourages them to be failure-avoidant and self-defensive at all times. This is counterproductive towards the kind of ownership that’s crucial for making improvements in performance.


10. Don’t pit employees against each other


Keep your conversations with the underperforming employee private and confidential unless necessary. There’s no reason to bad-mouth them to any of their teammates who’re performing better than they are. That isn’t providing an atmosphere for healthy competition; it’s just manipulative.

Additionally, it creates a toxic work environment that erodes social support, interdependence, and collaboration. All of this will hurt your entire team’s performance in the long run.



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