How to Confront an Underachieving Worker without Demotivating them Further

September 6th, 2019

As you review your list of direct reports, you see one or two who stand out, but not for great reasons. For example Sally, who used to be a superstar but who just hasn’t been crushing it this week (or this year). And Steve, who showed great potential during his interview but who never seemed to fulfill that promise. His “new-hire” grace period started in 2015 and still seems to be underway.

In both cases, you know these employees well enough to know that yelling at them, criticizing them, or threatening them won’t bring the results you desire. Besides, those methods don’t reflect your style as a manager or as a person. So what should you do? How can you confront Sally and/or Steve with some rough news about their performance?  And how can you do it without making things worse?

First, look at the big picture.

If the employee is truly a drain on the company and its culture, don’t waste time asking these questions. Just gently but firmly explain that you’d like to see three specific areas of improvement within a clear time frame, or the employee will face probation and/or termination. A long-term action plan will only be necessary if the employee genuinely wants to be here, but seems to struggle with motivation.

Second, allow the employee to talk first.

Invite Steve (or Sally) into your office to talk. Ask him how he feels about his situation, his workload and his performance. Then just listen. Chances are, something is wrong. Steve may be suffering from depression or burnout. He may be facing an unresolved conflict with a coworker. He may not fully understand the parameters or expectations of the job. He may be sick or in pain. He may be disappointed that the job isn’t taking him where he’d like to go. Any of these are possible, and so are an infinite number of other options. Listen carefully before you develop the next stage of your strategy.

Be kind.

Once Sally has described her issue, pause. Recognize that your job is not to help Sally at the expense of the company. And it’s not to help the company at Sally’s expense. Your job is to use your ingenuity and management skills to identify alignment between the needs of both parties. You need to help the company gain from Sally’s labor while helping Sally feel more engaged. How can you satisfy both sides of the table? Ask for her help and input.

Do the next part on your own.

Sally may need more training, a raise, a coaching plan, a promotion, a demotion, a different office, more resources, or more support. Make a plan to provide these things. Set a timeline. Then take one step at a time toward a better and more productive relationship.

For more on how to encourage an employee while also delivering a difficult assessment of their performance, talk to the staffing team at PSU.

Leave a Reply

©Year Personnel Services Unlimited, Inc.
All Rights Reserved. Site Credits.