How to motivate underperforming employees

Motivating employeesManaging underperforming employees is difficult and perhaps the most challenging task a manager can be faced with: you can’t just walk up to them and say, “Hey, you’re underperforming, you need to improve!” or you’ll only make matters worse.

But given the right approach you can motivate underperforming employees and turn them into productive and even great employees.


Recognise the symptoms

There are several symptoms associated with an underperformer, including:

  • Making the same mistakes time after time
  • Struggling to meet deadlines
  • Poor quality of work delivered
  • Not pulling their weight in the team

Poor performance should always be addressed immediately rather than letting it fester, otherwise it will impact on the rest of the team and lead to a demotivated and unproductive team.

Activity: Keep an eye for underperformance, you won’t be the only one who notices it and it can have a demoralising effect on the rest of the team.


Diagnose the problem

The first step in motivating your underperforming employees is to diagnose the problem. There may be a single or variety of issues why your underperformer isn’t meeting expectations.

First check that they have the necessary skills, abilities and tools to do the role you’re asking them to fulfil. A lack of expertise and knowledge is often the cause of underperformance and it can be easily rectified with some training or coaching, additionally not having the necessary tools to do the job can also be easily solved. Other causes might include disliking the project they are working on or stress caused by personal issues.

Activity: Sit down with your employee had have a proper conversation, give them feedback and listen to them in order to get to the root of the problem and move on.


Make an improvement plan

Underperforming employeesOnce you’ve identified the cause of the problem you can work with the employee to create an improvement plan. This means explaining, asking and involving them in the plan rather than imposing it.

Clarify the level of performance improvement you’re looking for, ask them for their ideas for measurable goals and how they will achieve them and then involve them in putting the plan together. Let them know the consequences of not achieving the goals set out in the plan but also include something that celebrates the employee achieving the goals.

Activity: Work together to set measurable goals that have consequences and celebrate the employees success.


Improve performance together

Your employees need to know that you are on their side and this performance improvement plan is part of their development and growth.

Give your employee regular feedback on their performance and encourage them by telling them that if they are committed to improving then you are committed to helping them. Give your employee the self-belief they need by showing confidence in them and pushing them to succeed.

Activity: If your employees are putting a real effort into achieving their improvement plan goals recognise that effort with a simple thank you stating specifically what they have done and the impact it has had either on you or the team.


Know when it’s time

As a manager it’s also important to know when you need to let people go rather than give them 4th, 10th or 20th chance.

If you can’t make the decision to let an employee go then you’re not only failing your underperforming employee but you’re also failing your team. Underperformance by one employee can damage the whole team so scoop up your managerial courage and make the best decision for your team.

Activity: Ensure you’ve documented the process you’ve been through with the employee to try and improve their performance.


John Sylvester

John is responsible for the motivation division of p&mm ltd and a Director on the board of the IPM. Specialising in developing, implementing and directing many large scale staff motivation, recognition and employee communications programmes.
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