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Underperforming employees can be a massive liability to businesses of all sizes. But identifying the cause of why somebody is underperforming isn’t always easy because the reasons behind poor performances are fairly personal, with employees either not wanting to acknowledge their recent lack of productivity or making any effort to change their behavior. 

However, when left to fester, unproductive employees can really harm a business, not only affecting the overall morale of the workplace but also leading to high potential financial losses. 

From an individual perspective, underperforming employees can also go on to develop a wide range of mental health issues, including executive burnout, anxiety and depression, which will have an inevitable ripple effect. 

So, what exactly should you do to manage an underperforming employee? And how can you, as their leader, identify the cause behind their change in work ethic? 

Understanding Underperformance

The first thing you need to do is recognize what underperformance actually is. Generally speaking, an underperforming employee will typically display one or more of the following traits: 

  • Failure to execute their responsibilities to the required standards 
  • Disruptive or negative conduct in the workplace 
  • Distinct lack of respect for the rules, procedures or policies in the workplace 

The cause for an employee’s underperformance can also be brought on for several reasons — whether it be through a lack of skills, dissatisfaction with their job, a poor culture fit, a stressful work environment or inadequate training. However, many underperforming employees will often feel reluctant to discuss the issue with their employer. As such, it will fall on your shoulders to recognize when somebody is underperforming; you will need to work it through with them, making specific accommodations to prevent them and other workers from reaching the same point of mental and physical exhaustion.

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Managing Underperformance

Once you have identified an underperforming employee, it’s important to manage the issue as quickly and effectively as possible. But due to the sensitivity and likely low morale of the employee in question, you will also need to tread with caution to prevent making the problem any worse. Here are a few proven methods to think about when trying to manage an underperforming employee: 

Regularly monitor staff performance. Prevention is often better than a cure, so when monitoring your staff’s performance, try to recognize any potential signs of underperformance before they become apparent. In today’s world of remote working, this may be more difficult than it was before. But, as their leader, it’s vital to educate yourself on the signs of staff burnout in order to know both how and when to react. 

Question your role. Before confronting an employee about their performance, take some time to question your own role in why they might be performing the way there are. For example, have you explicitly told them what you expect of them? And do they understand what the consequences of underperforming might be? 

In instances such as these, where the employee might not even realize they’re underperforming, education may be a better route to take. Offer subtle encouragement to alter their behavior without the need for an aggressive or confrontational stance.

Talk to your employees. While avoiding confrontation, sitting down and talking to your staff about any issues they’re having could make a big difference to their overall morale and performance. These conversations should aim to avoid any emotion or accusation and simply provide a platform for employees to talk about how they’re feeling without any judgment or pressure. In doing so, this will help take the guesswork out of identifying the root of an employee’s underperformance and will allow you to enact any relevant changes sooner rather than later. 

Reiterate expectations. Employees will often underperform when they are unaware of the roles and responsibilities expected of them. So, why not remind them? By arranging regular one-to-one sessions and setting realistic targets, you will be able to educate your employees better and keep a closer eye on their performance over time. Plus, should their standards ever start to slip, keeping a record of these meetings will prime you with the evidence you need to steer them back on track.

In my next article, I will discuss ways to help your employees manage mental and physical exhaustion.

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