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Managing Your Underperforming Employees


There isn’t a one-size-fit-all approach when it comes to developing your talent. Developing and motivating the wide range of talent in your organization can be tricky – particularly those underperforming. In this article, we suggest how to approach and manage your underperformers.

When should managers approach underperforming employees?

While we naturally fear giving feedback, feedback is paramount, and it is in your employees’ best interest to say something sooner rather than later. Waiting too long allows the employee to continue to make the same mistakes. Hence, we recommend that you say something right away.

How should managers approach underperforming employees?

First off, avoid making the conversations confrontational (especially if you do not have all the context around the situation) – you can do this by describing the situation, stating what you have observed, and asking open ended questions.

Open-ended questions to ask to your underperforming employee

  • What is in your way? What is stopping you?
  • What would you advise?
  • What are some action items that you can do today so this project/issue can move forward?
  • What is something I can do to support you? What do you expect of me (as your manager)? What should I do differently?
  • What is something that happened during this week or month that made you feel good about your work?
  • Do you have any questions?
  • Are expectations and goals clear?

By asking open-ended questions, you can gain insight into the employee’s performance, work habits, and skill set. Moreover, these types of questions help you build a relationship with your employee. It shows them you care about them and that you are invested in their career. Ensure that you meet with the employee often and provide feedback on their progress.

Ensuring psychological safety

With sensitive topics, approaching issues with underperformers can be even more challenging. First off, ensure the well-being of your employees. Ask them if they are ok or how they are feeling. Show empathy.

Empathy is the most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox. Empathy is being concerned about the human being, not just their output.” – Simon Sinek


It can be helpful for managers to describe their failures and how they were able to overcome them. Also, it is ok for you as a manger to admit that you do not know all the answers but you will do your best to help and support the employee. Showing this type of vulnerability can help you be relatable to your direct reports and show them that you do care for them.

Besides feedback, are there other ways that managers can address underperformers?

Buddy programs and mentorship programs can be very helpful. All employees can benefit from having a coach – and remember the coach doesn’t necessarily have to be the manager. For example, ask the high performers to help coach underperformers on your team (these coaching opportunities can also be great training for high performers).

In addition, don’t be afraid to partner with HR. HR tends to be the last resort for many managers, but you should not just go to HR when things are bad. Make your HR department aware of any people issue. They can help managers approach the situation and offer insight that managers may not have.

What about PIPs (performance improvement plans)?

We recommend only implementing PIPs if there is genuine chance of improvement and your employee is willing to improve. Otherwise, there is a great amount of resources (time, money, documentation, etc) that goes into PIPs; and most of the time, they simply don’t work. Check out our full article on PIPs.

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