One of my favorite things about what I do is having the opportunity to lead and manage others. I get to build teams, develop individuals, connect with people one-on-one, and coach them through key moments in their careers. But with the good comes the bad—and as a manager, it’s up to me to seek out and address poor work performance when it happens.

What I’ve found is that what manifests as poor employee performance doesn’t always come from incompetency or inability for individuals to get their job done. Sometimes there are underlying challenges keeping an employee from high performance that have nothing to do with their role competency. As a manager, it’s your job to do the digging and address the issue head-on.

Is it Really Poor Work Performance — Or Something Else?

In my experience, here are a few common underlying issues that result in poor performance:

Disengagement

Gallup reports that a whopping 70% of the US workforce is disengaged in their jobs. So there’s a good chance that your underperforming employee could be one of them. Consider: is your employee underperforming because they’re bad at their job? Or because they aren’t invested in the work or the culture? There are multiple ways to spot burnout and address the problem before it escalates.

Lack of Training

Every employee should have the basic skills necessary to do their job upon hiring—a developer needs to know code, an accountant needs numbers skills, etc. But perhaps there are new advancements or technology in their field that the employee isn’t privy to, resulting in underperformance. Setting aside budget and time for employee professional development and training keeps team members current and on top of the latest trends in the field.

Lack of Resources

Is the employee being set up for success? Even a top player will have a hard time succeeding in a role where they’re taking on the work of multiple people or they don’t have the programs/tools to more effectively communicate and do their job. Be sure to assess 1) what someone in their role needs on a daily basis to succeed (i.e. the latest software, quiet space for focus, or even office supplies) and 2) if those resources are being made available to your employee.

Personal Problems

Forty-seven percent of all employees report that stress of a personal problem impacts their poor work performance. If you’re having trouble with an underperforming employee, make sure there’s nothing going on at home or anything you can do from a work perspective to help them succeed despite internal struggles.

Regardless of what it is, the key is to get to the root of the problem first before jumping to conclusions. You can identify these symptoms early and often simply by keeping in close communication with your team members.

What to Deal With Poor Work Performance

If you’ve done your investigating and know that poor employee performance is truly the issue, it’s time to attack it head-on. Instead of overreacting, simple tactics can help you effectively and professionally turn employee performance around:

Poor Employee Performance

Confront the Employee

I’ve known people who will avoid confrontation at all costs for fear of hurting an employee’s feelings or making things awkward on the team. But when it’s well-executed and puts the employee and team’s best interest at heart, it can be relatively painless. The key is communication—no one can improve or correct their actions unless they’ve been made aware that there’s an issue, to begin with. Whereas subtle hints in passing or changes in body language aren’t going to do the trick, setting up a formal confrontation with your employee will give them a “wake up call” that something needs to change.

In my experience, it’s best to do this as early and often as possible. At Jell, we put this in practice with a New Employee Success Plan, which is given to all new hires to identify what success looks like at the 30, 60, and 90-day marks. Doing this helps us avoid poor work performance because we:

  • Set expectations early
  • Ensure a plan is clearly documented
  • Force the manager/employee to have regular conversations about measuring performance to make sure everyone’s on the same page

A word of advice? Plan your confrontation discussion before you go in blind and speak too vaguely, aggressively, or broadly.

Set and Keep Goals

It’s said that people who set goals are 10x more likely to achieve them. Regardless of whether or not that’s true, the simple act of naming them makes them real. If employees aren’t meeting your expectations, could it be that you haven’t adequately defined them?

  • Think smaller. Perhaps your company already sets goals. That’s not enough. Employees need to be able to relate to the team and individual levels to buy in. Set goals for each employee and your team as a whole that relate back to the overarching goals at the executive level so individuals can feel like they have a stake in the company and are regularly hitting milestones.
  • Make goals visible. When goals are shared once at the quarterly meeting and not again for the next three months, achieving them is unrealistic. Keep goals top-of-mind by posting them around the office and on your internal tools/channels to give employees a reminder and make them readily accessible.
  • Check-in. If you’re not already using your team meetings to check in on goal progress, you should be. Conducting daily stand-ups keeps your team well-connected, on track, and accountable for the goals you set at the beginning of the quarter.

poor work performance goal tracking

Regularly Track Progress

It’s unfair (and unproductive) to only raise issues to an employee when they’re on their way out the door. Continual communication in the form of regular one-on-ones allows you to gather feedback, check in on issues as they arise, and connect with your team member in real time. Unachieved goals at the end of a quarter should never be a surprise (or a reality) if you’re regularly checking in with your employee and helping them correct roadblocks as they arise.

In addition, conducting quarterly performance reviews gives you an outlet to address poor work performance and opportunities for improvement that aren’t urgent enough to discuss on a weekly basis. This is where you can address things like:

  • Professionalism and tact
  • Assertiveness
  • Business acumen
  • Opportunities for professional development/training
  • Time management

Don’t forget to highlight areas of exceptional work as well so the employee knows what to continue doing.

Incentivize and Give Recognition

According to OfficeVibe, managers who recognize employee performance can increase engagement by almost 60%. I have to assume that most poor performers genuinely want to improve and be successful. But if they don’t have a clear model for what great performance looks like, they won’t know to replicate it. Plus, rewarding great performance not only motivates poor performers to continually succeed but also incentivizes top performers to keep winning.

Recognizing employees doesn’t have to be extravagant. In fact, 82% of employees think it’s better to give someone praise than a gift. Try these small, but appreciated tactics:

  • Privately praise good work in one-on-ones
  • Recognize high performance at daily stand-ups
  • Give credit to each project participant when showcasing departmental work in front of the company

Know When to Part Ways

If you’ve tried everything and given the underperforming employee ample chances to improve, there’s only one other thing you can do. And that’s ok.

In his book Good to Great, author Jim Collins describes what it’s like getting the right people in the right seats of your metaphorical “bus.” If not, it may require some rearranging—or having the wrong people get off.

While you can do everything to try and motivate an underperformer, at some point, individual shortcomings will impact the team and company. Termination is never easy, but as a manager, it’s your duty to ensure you have the best team in place to meet your goals and succeed.

Addressing poor work performance on your team comes with the job of being a manager. By getting to the root of the issue and prioritizing regular communication, you can save yourself, the employee, and your team a lot of misery in the long run.