When you distil everything, your job as a manager is to get the best out of your team. By doing this, you help them develop and learn as much as they can along the way, ultimately helping them have engaging and hopefully, fulfilling careers. At the same time, you contribute to the success of your team and wider company. Due to this, your own peers respect you as a manager and are likely to have an engaging and fulfilling career too.
One big blocker to all of this is an underperforming team member.
Even if you manage a team of five people and four of them are exceptional performers, the one remaining underperformer can derail your entire team and your own performance.
The reason for this is something called negativity bias which means that bad is stronger than good. That single underperforming team member will dominate most of your time and your headspace, despite there being four other high performers in your team. In fact, you may well find that you end up spending more time and headspace on that one underperformer than you do with the other four team members – combined.
This can lead to you neglecting your remaining team members because, ironically, they are doing really well and you feel that you need to spend time with the one person who is struggling. Whilst this can be fine in the short term, it can cause damage in the long run because even top performers will start to become frustrated at this situation.
I’d even go as far to say that over the course of a few months, you should actually be spending more time with your top performers than your low performers. But I know it can be difficult.
As a result, you need to be very efficient and effective when dealing with low performers – so that you don’t accidentally spend too little time with the rest of your team.
To help you with this, below is an example action plan that you can use to improve the performance of someone who is struggling with their role.
Step 1 – Identify the root cause(s) of the underperformance
There are a range of reasons why someone may be struggling in their role. It’s important to go deep into this before you start working on how to improve things. Causes of underperformance can be things such as:
- A lack of organisation
- A lack of skills
- A lack of motivation
- Personal/non-work pressures
- Being recently promoted and taking on new responsibilities
It’s likely that underperformance will be manifested via day-to-day deliverables and behaviours. But you need to look below the surface and see if any of the causes of underperformance above are present.
Step 2 – Identify clear examples of underperforming behaviours or deliverables (and connect these to their role)
Before starting a conversation about someone’s underperformance, you need to have clear examples prepared to talk to them about. When you get into this kind of conversation, their first reaction is almost always to ask for more information and examples of what you’re raising.
Take some time to gather examples and most importantly, connect these examples to their role and their key responsibilities. You need to draw a clear line between the underperformance and the expectations that you have of them in their role.
For example, if a core part of someone’s role is to communicate regularly with clients, but they are missing calls, arriving late to meetings or sending over emails with errors in them, it’s easy to see how this is a problem. Essentially, you’re able to show that they’re not delivering upon a key part of their role.
Finally for this step of the plan, note down the consequences of the examples that you’ve listed.
Continuing with the example above, a consequence could be that trust with the client is damaged and they start to question whether they are working with the right supplier. Eventually, if this problem isn’t resolved, the key consequence could be that the client fires your company and you lose the revenue as a result.
It’s super, super important to talk about the consequences of underperformance. Otherwise, the individual may not understand the severity of what’s going on and the importance of improving things. They need to take your words seriously and want to improve things as a result.
Step 3 – Define what better looks like
Let’s be real – it’s unlikely and very rare for someone to move from being an underperformer to being an exceptional performer overnight. Expecting this is likely to lead to disappointment on all sides because you’re setting unrealistic expectations.
Instead, think what looks better – not perfect, just better.
What would you need to see to know that someone is making even the smallest of improvements? What are the things you’d expect to see just for them to be competent in their role and performing at a satisfactory level?
This is where you need to start when it comes to telling them what needs to be improved.
I’m not saying you should stop here. Afterall, you should be aiming for all team members to go beyond competent performance. But the team member needs to feel like they have a fighting chance of doing what you need them to do. You can be open about this being a phased plan and that you’re asking them to take one step at a time, but try not to overwhelm them and lead to them giving up before they’ve even started.
When you define what better looks like, make sure that you are being specific about what they need to do. You also need to put a timeline on what you’re asking them to do and how you’ll know when they have got there.
Again, keeping with the example problems above, you could tell them that during the next month, you expect them to arrive two minutes early to every client meeting and to bcc you on all client emails so that you can review and if needed, give them feedback on their communication.
Step 4 – Drive accountability for improvements
Steps 1-3 are pointless without accountability. You can do a great job of all of them, leading to you communicating really clearly what someone needs to do to improve their performance, but what happens then?
Chances are, after your conversation with them, they’ll feel a little bit shell shocked and then get back to work – likely opening up Slack and email, leading to them being faced with lots of messages to read and process. Then client work needs to be done and they just fall back into their regular routine.
You need to break this cycle and ensure that they don’t get back to work in the same way and forget your conversation and integrate your expectations into their ways of working.
You do this by driving accountability into them.
How to do this? Driving accountability is actually pretty simple in this case.
Set up one on one meetings and tell them that in the first one (I’d recommend this being a week after your conversation), you’ll be asking them about how they’re delivering on the expectations and improvements that you’ve set.
At the end of that first one on one meeting, you set more actions and say that the next one on one meeting will start with a review of those actions. You do this for every meeting you have.
Whatever you do – do NOT start a meeting in any other way than with previous actions. It may take a couple of meetings for it to stick, but at some point, the individual will “get it” and accountability will sit with them before each and every meeting.