7 Ways To (Sensitively) Approach An Underperforming Employee was originally published on Ivy Exec.
Lately, you’ve been noticing a sizable drop in performance from someone on your team — and it doesn’t seem like an “off week” they’re having, either.
It’s unrealistic and even toxic, of course, to expect work to always be priority No. 1 among your employees — especially during year three of a pandemic. Depending on what may be happening in their personal lives, even your star talent is likely to have periods of time where work just isn’t the focus. And that’s totally understandable. As a manager, you’re tasked both with being empathetic to this while also ensuring that your team’s long-term performance doesn’t suffer as a result.
Perhaps this employee is one of your best workers and is, you know, likely to get themselves back on track eventually without intervention. Or maybe the person who’s underperforming is a newer hire, and their learning curve has been more extended than you would’ve hoped for. In either scenario, it’s a good idea to act sooner rather than later. Though conversations about underperformance aren’t exactly fun, you owe it to them — and to the rest of your team — to be direct and get a handle on the situation before any more problems fester.
How can you approach this conversation sensitively, providing constructive criticism that makes the need for change clear while also not discouraging the employee — particularly in this time of rampant turnover? Below, experts told us how, exactly, they’ve nailed this balance.
1. Ask: “Do you need any help with your tasks right now?”
It’s more subtle than asking, say, “why have you been missing your targets?” — and it also reminds them that you’re on their side, Chris Walker, CEO of Superstar SEO, said.
“You’re informing them that help is available by saying this, and you’re discreetly indicating that they might need it even though it doesn’t appear that way,” Walker said. “This question allows the person to assess their existing capacity and aptitude, which frequently leads to the realization that they are not performing to their full potential. Instead of discouraging them, asking this question empowers them while also subtly, but effectively emphasizing the need for change.”
2. Make an effort to re-engage them.
When it’s clear that the problem is persisting, schedule a one-on-one with the employee. Ahead of the meeting, tell them that you’d like to offer them some coaching, and that you could use their input in a few areas as well, Michael Knight, co-founder of Incorporation Insight, said.
“Getting underperforming members engaged again by offering them the opportunity to voice their insights can bring back life into their work personalities,” he said. “This will significantly help them feel seen and recognized, giving them the motivation to perform well again. Additionally, working closely with them will allow them to see your work ethic. This is a way of leading by example.”
3. Now, take the opportunity to bring up their recent performance.
After you’ve made things feel a bit more positive and reciprocal than the standard “we need to talk” approach, move onto asking them: “How have you been feeling recently?” Knight recommended saying the following:
“‘I noticed a change in your work performance and I’m wondering if you have any recent problems that I can assist you with, in any way.’ Checking up on underperforming employees from a personal level forges a more open and intimate communication. By saying this, you’re telling them you’re there to help them and that you’re coming to them as a friend, rather than their employer.”
4. Be kind, direct and specific.
Vague intimations help no one here, Chris Muller, Director of Audience Growth at DoughRoller, said.
“Explain exactly what you’re noticing, how it’s affecting the team’s work, and how you intend to assist them in any way you can,” he said. “The dialogue may go something like this: ‘I feel that you are capable of doing better, and I recognize that I may be contributing to the situation in some way. So, what is the best way to get out of this situation? How can we make improvements?’ It is critical to involve the individual in the process of brainstorming, inviting them to provide ideas.”
5. Create an improvement plan together.
Now that you’ve reached an understanding on what the issues at hand are, pinpoint an improvement strategy.
“Start outlining the specifics of a concrete strategy that both parties can agree on,” Edward Mellett, Founder of Wikijob.com, said. “Define the changes you’ll need to observe in the employee, as well as the measurable goals or metrics you’ll need to track their development.”
Be certain that the expectations you’re setting are realistic ones, Mellett added.
“You don’t want to set the bar too high — simply because an employee has underperformed in the past does not imply that they must substantially outperform in the future to keep their employment,” he said. “If the employee believes the plan’s goals or KPIs are utterly unrealistic or unattainable, they’ll likely start looking for new employment as soon as the meeting is over. Make a decision that both of you can live with.”
6. Follow up (fairly) regularly.
You do want to be checking in with the employee often enough that you’re able to monitor their progress, and also give them a platform for voicing any problems they’re encountering. You don’t want these check-ins to be so frequent, though, that they feel unable to realistically achieve targets between them.
“You must allow the employee a sufficient amount of time to get back on their feet,” Ernests Embutnieks, CEO of perfectgift4, said. “Monitor the employee’s progress on the action plan and promote future growth by scheduling daily or weekly meetings. Give the employee lots of chances to discuss how their work ethic is progressing and what is still difficult for them to deal with at work.”
7. Recognize their achievements.
When the improvement plan proves successful, it’s essential the employee feels adequately recognized for it, Lauren Cook-McKay, Director of Marketing at Divorce Answers, said.
“It’s not just about the act of acknowledgment, but also about the philosophy of it — people will be driven to keep working hard if they feel acknowledged,” she said. “Seventy-eight percent of employees, according to Globoforce, would work harder if they were better recognized. Recognize employees who have improved their performance, identifying both major and small wins, and emphasize how much of a team player your employees are.”
Find more leadership advice on the blog.