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How to Address an Associate’s Poor Performance


It’s a manager’s least favorite part of their job: addressing poor performance of one of their associates. We get it. It can be an awkward (and sometimes unproductive) conversation, but if managers are properly prepared for the conversation, the conversation doesn’t have to be uncomfortable and unproductive.

Commons reasons for poor performance

Before addressing poor performance, it is important that managers understand the root causes of poor performance. Figuring out the cause of poor performance is important to understanding how to address it.

1) Unclear expectations

If expectations, tasks and/or deliverables are not clear or if the expectations are misunderstood by the employee, performance will suffer. Often this is the result of miscommunication between the manager and the employee.

2) Lack of resources or skills

Sometimes poor performance is a result of either the employee not having the right set of skills or the employee lacking the proper resources. Does the employee have enough time to complete the tasks? Was the employee recently promoted? Does the employee have the right skill set to complete all duties and responsibilities effectively? In these cases, simple training or mentoring may help solve the problem.

3) Employee burnout

Employee burnout is common in professional services firms. Burnout can subsequently lead to disengagement and lack of motivation which can contribute to poor performance. While burnout is not a free pass for doing poor work, it should raise a red flag to managers who should address the root cause of employee burnout.

How to address poor performance

1) Have frequent 1-on-1 check-ins

The best way to address poor performance or prevent it from occurring in the first place is to have frequent 1-on-1s. These meetings should be used to clarify individual objectives, tasks, and deliverables to ensure that both managers and employees are on the same page. Managers should also address any obstacles in the way of the employee (e.g. getting a decision from clients or team members, problems collaborating with another department, etc).

In addition to objectives, these 1-on-1 meetings are also a time for managers to give feedback and recognition. For some associates, having their work recognized or receiving feedback on their work is vitally important to their satisfaction at work, and their performance may improve just from past work being recognized and getting constructive feedback.

Finally, managers should use this time to ask their associates effective feedback questions. Questions should not dig deeper into performance issues. Questions should also address what motivates employees which is an important part of managing employee performance.

Did you know that more frequent check-ins has been a trend in performance management for a few years? Many organizations understand the value in these frequent meetings, and many actively promote a culture of feedback in their organization.

2) Document performance feedback

There are numerous reasons to document feedback.

  1. Reduce liability risk – good documentation of performance helps you defend against wrongful termination lawsuits.
  2. Eliminate biases – if you cannot remember what you had for lunch last week, how can you accurately remember performance in the last year? Short answer – you cannot. Documentation helps eliminate recency bias.
  3. Keeps both parties on the same page – people are forgetful. Managers and associates should have a way to view their past feedback to help direct their present behaviors and skills.

3) Create an action plan (if necessary)

Depending on how often performance feedback is documented, organizations may opt to address poor performance through a more formal action plan or performance improvement plan. These plans should include:

  1. Description of problem
  2. Goals of employee
  3. How progress will be assessed
  4. Deadlines
  5. Support that manager will provide

4) Follow-up

Following-up on performance conversations is vital. This may come as additional meetings (outside the frequent 1-on-1 check-ins). Subsequent meetings should address any progress that has been made and feedback and/or recognition should be given to help support and direct the employee in regards to their performance. Remember that creating a supportive environment is a necessary condition to improving an associate’s performance.


It is imperative that managers understand the root of a performance problem before it is addressed. Ability and motivation impact performance, and the most successful strategy to improve poor performance is usually a combination of improving ability (through additional training, setting clear goals, providing continuous feedback and recognition, etc) and motivation (frequent 1-on-1s, asking questions, creating a supportive environment, etc).

If you liked this blog, we highly recommend downloading our guide on developing better managers.

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