underperforming employee

What to do with nice, but underperforming employees

What do you do when a team member is a great people person but is ineffective at their job? It’s a common challenge for managers – one that is difficult to deal with.

An underperforming employee hurts everyone: the person, the team, the company and your clients.

If you allow it to go on, it can damage relationships among team members and with clients. Sooner or later it will hurt your brand. Without feedback and coaching, the agreeable employee may wonder why they’re stagnating in their career even though they get along with everyone.

Instead, you must be clear about your expectations for employee performance. Afterall, it’s the professional thing to do.

Use these five steps to diagnose what’s going on with a nice, but underperforming employee and begin working toward a resolution.

1. Understand how the employee is underperforming.

Before you can talk with your employee about their performance, you must understand in what ways they aren’t meeting expectations.

Often these issues can fall into two camps:

  • Work performance
  • Workplace habits

Begin by creating a list of facts related to the issue that need to be addressed.

By focusing on facts, you can:

  • Move past the discomfort of critiquing a friendly employee’s performance
  • Find practical solutions to the problem

One you have a list of facts, analyze them to determine if they’re performance- or habit-related.

Is the employee meeting your performance expectations?

Performance standards describe what the employee should be doing. For example, a sales associate may be required to:

  • Make 25 cold calls each week.
  • Write and share a statement of work for each current client.
  • Return emails and phone calls within one business day.

Are they hitting those targets? If not, it’s a performance issue.

Is the employee demonstrating good work habits?

Work habits are more about how the work gets done.

For example, an underperforming team member might attend all meetings but doesn’t contribute. Or, perhaps they arrive late and take frequent breaks.

These are work habit issues.

2. Consider obstacles the employee may face.

Next, ask yourself what might be preventing the employee from meeting performance expectations or maintaining good work habits. Most everyone wants to do a good job. So, what’s getting in the way for this person? It might be:

You can make notes about what you think the obstacles are, but don’t assume your guesses are correct. You need to seek and verify during a coaching conversation.

Do, however, assume that the employee’s intentions are good.

3. Prepare a coaching approach to your conversation.

Use your notes to prepare for your talk with the employee. You can write a purpose and importance statement to get you started.

For example, “I’d like to discuss your recent performance. It’s important as it affects each client and the team.”

You can follow that with:

  • What you’ve seen and heard
  • Recent results
  • Other facts that are cause for concern

As you write, think about how this person may react to what you tell them and how you might address those concerns. How might you maintain their self-esteem?  When might it be appropriate to empathize?

Write out the questions you’d like to ask to help you explore the issue with the employee. Some helpful questions are:

  • Have you noticed this? 
  • Has this happened before? 
  • What’s getting in your way? 
  • Can you help me understand why you did (or didn’t) do this? 

Then be quiet and let them answer.

4. Give the employee ownership of the solution.

Friendly, outgoing people will often reflexively want to take responsibility for correcting the situation, which can help move the discussion toward solutions.

You can provide support and move to resolution by preparing questions like:

  • “What ideas do you have about this?”
  • “What steps do you think you should take?”

Think about the kind of support you can provide. For example, maybe an employee who’s struggling to meet performance standards needs time to take some skills trainings. Or, perhaps you can provide time to resolve a family issue.

Remember, though, it’s their responsibility to follow through by addressing their performance or knowledge gap.

5. Have the conversation.

With your notes and employee coaching approach ready, you can have your conversation with more confidence that it will stay on track and be as positive and solution-focused as possible.

  • Start the conversation by thanking the employee for agreeing to meet with you.
  • Then state the purpose and importance of the conversation and your concern.
  • Walk them through the facts about their performance and find out what the obstacles are.  A good tip here is to allow them to do most of the talking. Give the gift of your attention. Ask a question and be quiet.
  • Then you can explore solutions and offer support. Again, allow them to do most of the talking and take ownership.
  • Wrap up the conversation by agreeing on next steps and setting a date to meet again to review their progress. State your confidence in their ability to address these concerns and your appreciation for them discussing with you.

6. Seek alternative solutions if coaching doesn’t work.

What happens if the employee can’t make meaningful progress toward improvement? If coaching doesn’t work, finding another role within or outside the organization may be the best option.

This process starts with a candid conversation. If your nice employee is struggling, they’re aware of it and most likely very stressed by it. They may welcome your guidance to discover their professional strengths and interests so they can find the right role, either on your team, somewhere else in the organization or in another organization all together.

You might ask questions like:

  • “What are you really good at?”
  • “What part of your job do you really love?”
  • “What would you like to do more of at work?”

These questions can help your employee find a niche that helps them and their team to thrive.

For example, an employee who struggles to close sales but loves to train customers on your products might move into and thrive in a full-time training role.

In the end, you want to find a situation where both the employee and the company benefit.

Summing it all up

Your role when coaching for performance and work habits is to guide them – not to do it for them.

With a coaching mindset, consistent support and a willingness to help explore new options, you can help your underperformers improve. That’s one of the nicest things you can do for them – and the best financial result for your organization.

Are you looking for more ways to help your team reach their full potential? Download our free e-book: How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.

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