13 Ways To Help an Underperforming Employee Succeed

Updated February 3, 2023

An employee places a hand on the shoulder of a coworker.

Managing employee performance entails taking the time to help employees maximize their potential. Sometimes this means working with one or more employees to establish better performance standards. By giving them the chance to improve, you can maintain a quality team of individuals who respect and value the company and your leadership.

In this article, we review 13 ways managers can help an underperforming employee.

What causes employee underperformance?

There are a number of factors that fuel underperformance. An employee may need help strengthening their skills, building their confidence and managing their time. They may also need clarification from management on their expectations and team goals. Other contributors to underperformance can be the onboarding process, the availability of training and development and the individual's lack of interest in the daily reality of the duties and responsibilities of their job. Increasing the employee's motivation can enable them to produce higher quality work and become more successful in their roles.

Related: How To Document Employee Performance Issues

13 ways to help an underperforming employee

Underperformance is an all-too-common problem in the workplace and can affect any employee at every level. A consistent approach is key to maintaining morale and productivity. Here are 13 ways you can work with an underperforming employee to create change and improve their productivity:

1. Take action immediately

One of the key components to help an underperforming employee is to act as soon as you start noticing signs of underperformance. For example, if an employee begins turning in reports late, missing meetings or doing less work than usual, you can acknowledge those changes and make a plan of action. If the company doesn't have a program beyond annual reviews, you can implement a performance management system for the team.

Related: 8 Steps To Respond To a Performance Improvement Plan

2. Send out a training survey

If you see underperformance in more than one member of a team, it could be a sign that the team might need additional training. Send out an employee survey to identify areas where they lack confidence. Gauge the employees' perceptions of their managers' leadership styles. If multiple responses mention that they want more daily direction, for example, then that's where you can focus to improve performance standards. Consider holding a morning meeting, checking on team members throughout the day and providing feedback more often.

Related: Employee Surveys: Your Modern Day Suggestion Box

3. Meet with the underperforming employee

Upon noticing changes in their work behavior, schedule time for a one-on-one meeting. Ask how they're doing with their current workload and address the areas of their job where they're underperforming. This can help them understand their current position while also demonstrating that you care about their success. Remind the employee of your expectations for them and constructively point out where they could improve.

4. Identify the cause

By establishing the cause of their underperformance, you can create a plan to help them succeed in the future. Maybe they focus a lot on small details. Perhaps they need additional training in a particular aspect of their job.

Sometimes work-related circumstances aren't the cause of underperformance. Instead, employee underperformance could be because of personal life changes. In this case, try to be understanding and establish a time frame in which you expect them to regain their former performance level.

5. Establish long-term goals

Sometimes an employee may lose focus on their career goals. Meet with them to discuss their purpose on the job. This could offer a fresh perspective on their long-term goals and reinvigorate their work ethic.

If you see a pattern of underperformance in the employee, it could be because they can benefit from remembering the importance of their role within the organization. Discuss their relevance in the organization and the purpose of each of their daily duties. Explain to them what can occur when they complete their tasks effectively.

Related: How To Set Goals at Work (With Benefits and Tips)

6. Schedule regular meetings

Set up daily, weekly or monthly meetings to help monitor the progress of team members. Use this time to listen to their reflections and discuss what they still find challenging and where they may feel more comfortable. You can refocus their performance goals or provide training when necessary.

Feedback can be a powerful motivator for employees. Provide them with critiques of their work so they can identify where they can still improve. If they hit their daily quota, attend every meeting that week or turn in a report on time, make sure you also take the time to praise them for what they've achieved.

Related: 4 Ways Feedback Improves Performance in the Workplace

7. Encourage continuous learning

If the employee mentioned a specific skill they want to improve that currently affects their job performance, suggest an online course or a seminar to develop that skill. You could even enroll the entire department in the course so everyone can augment their knowledge of a particular subject. Another source of invaluable information, a mentor, also can provide years of industry knowledge and encouragement to an underperforming employee. Consider choosing someone who doesn't work in the same department and holds a higher position in the company.

Related: Mentoring Programs: Benefits and How To Get Involved

8. Support a healthy work-life balance

If an employee shares that their underperformance has to do with their personal life, you can gently suggest time off to focus on their current situation. They could benefit by using accrued leave time to attend personal events and return to work when they're able to focus on their professional responsibilities. Sometimes employees get so invested in their jobs that they prioritize work over their personal goals. You can help prevent overwork and its resulting underperformance by promoting a healthy work-life balance for employees and encouraging them to take time off when it works for them.

Related: Ultimate Guide To Work-Life Balance

9. Offer additional training

If an employee is underperforming, they might need more on-the-job training. For example, if a member of your sales team has continuously missed their sales targets for the week, you can schedule a training session to revisit your sales strategies. If training doesn't resolve the issue, it might be time for a new task that can challenge the underperforming employee in other ways. A change can offer a fresh start and give them a break from other tasks that have become less challenging.

Related: FAQ About Developing Training Programs

10. Reward improvement

If you notice a significant positive change in the employee's productivity, acknowledge and reward it with a gift, such as their favorite work snack or a note of praise for their excellent work. Small but meaningful gestures can encourage the employee to continue making improvements.

If you notice widespread underperformance, it might be helpful to create an incentive program based on achieving department goals. For example, if the sales team meets their monthly quotas, they can earn a Friday off or a gift card to a restaurant of their choice.

Related: 70 Creative Ways To Reward Employees (Plus Why It Matters)

11. Practice confidentiality

Another helpful way to nurture and respect the performance of an employee is by practicing discretion within the department. Keep the employee's improvement plans between you and them. Confidentiality could help them remain confident among their colleagues.

12. Maintain records of progress

As the team member continues to improve, document their actions so you can track their progress effectively. Your records can contain notes you've taken during one-on-one meetings and successes the employee has achieved through additional training and new projects. You can also reference your documents to identify what the individual can still do to become more competent in their roles.

13. Support responsibility

Once the employee begins to show improvements in their performance, entrust them to be accountable for their work. You can also continue to regularly monitor their results. The goal is to eventually ease up on your coaching when you see a strong pattern of progress.


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