How-To: Manage an Underperformer

Have a critical conversation, give the underperformer real feedback, and try to get at the root of the problem.

By Brad Karsh, President, JB Training Solutions

Working with an underperformer ranks as one of the most difficult challenges any manager will face. Whether your underperformer consistently produces “meh” work, makes the same mistakes again and again, or just feels like dead weight on the team, poor performance must be addressed immediately. Great managers and leaders take the time to work with these employees to transform them into major contributors and higher-level employees. Here are a few best practices to keep in mind when managing an underperformer:

1. Diagnose the problem. “For every hundred men hacking away at the branches of a diseased tree, only one will stoop to inspect the roots.” Consider this Chinese proverb and how it applies to management. When you think about performance, there are two drivers: ability (do they know how to do the job?) and motivation (are they excited about doing it?) Ask yourself, is the individual performing this way because of a lack of ability or a lack of motivation?

Many times as managers, we tell ourselves, “If they just try harder, they’ll be fine!” But it doesn’t always work that way. Diagnose the problem effectively and refrain from jumping to conclusions.

This doesn’t mean walking up to your underperformer and saying, “Hey, is your mediocre performance a lack of motivation or a lack of ability?” Instead, have a critical conversation, give them real feedback, and try to get at the root of the problem. There’s a difference between an answer of “Gosh, I’ve tried it 700 times and I just don’t get it!” (lack of ability) and “I really dislike this project and I’m having trouble staying focused” (lack of motivation). When you talk to your underperformer and identify the issue, it’s much easier to move forward.

2. Make an improvement plan—and stick to it. Set measurable goals, have consequences, and celebrate successes—big and small. For example, “Matt, now that we’ve identified the cause of issue X, I want you to list three specific goals for yourself to improve your performance. If you don’t meet these goals in X amount of time, we are going to have to discuss consequences, which could include A, B, and C. I know you are capable of achieving the goals you set for yourself, and I’m here to support you every step of the way.”

3. Let them know you’re on their side. Expect greatness from your employees and push them to succeed. Reiterate that you are on their side and that feedback is part of the growth and development of every employee. Let them know that if they commit to being better, you’ll commit to helping them meet their goals. By showing you believe in them, you’ll boost their confidence to succeed on the job.

4. Document everything. I can’t tell you how often we forget to do this. If it ever does come to a point where the employee may need to be laid off, you’ll need that documentation to make your case. As you follow steps 1-3 above, be sure to recap everything in writing. You also can loop HR in on the progress by compiling these e-mails and documents for its records.

5. Know when it’s time to make a tough decision. Mustering up the managerial courage to let someone go isn’t easy. We tend to give people sixth, seventh, and eighth chances or pass them along to another manager. Keeping underperformers hurts other team members as they bring the morale of the entire team down.

If you’ve done your due diligence as a manager—you’ve given direct and honest feedback, documented the poor behavior, and clearly articulated the consequences—letting an employee go generally should not come as a shock. Remember, you aren’t the only one noticing the issues with the underperformer, but you are the only one in the position to make a tough decision and do what is best for your team.

Brad Karsh is president of JB Training Solutions, a training and development company based in Chicago, IL, dedicated to helping individuals succeed in the workplace through Webinars, e-learning, and live training workshops. For more information, visit or follow the company on Twitter @JBTSolutions.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.