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3 science-backed strategies to manage underperforming employees

Spoiler alert: it starts with a shift in mindset.

3 science-backed strategies to manage underperforming employees
[Source illustration: Rafael Abdrakhmanov/iStock]

Managing employee underperformance is one of the most difficult tasks a manager faces, leading most of them to avoid having the necessary difficult conversations. COVID-19 only adds to the complexity of the situation as more employees are working remotely.

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We recently conducted a study of leaders who had successfully managed underperforming employees. Three practical strategies arose from the data that can help current managers in this situation. The common theme among our study participants is as simple in theory as it is difficult in practice. Each treated their underperforming employee as a person, rather than a number, or an object. This mindset made all of the difference for these study participants in their ability to help their struggling employees. We think it can make a difference for you to help your underperforming employee as well.

Strategy 1: Believe they want to succeed

When an employee is unable to meet performance expectations, it’s common for a manager to begin focusing on the employee’s weaknesses rather than on their strengths. The manager may begin to wonder what they ever saw in this employee in the first place. Focusing exclusively on a person’s weaknesses is a telltale sign that we are seeing that person as an object. The danger of this response is that it can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which a manager can actually bring about the very behavior they dislike.

Our study participants who took a different approach saw their struggling employees as people with strengths who, despite their weakness in one area, still wanted to succeed in their job. This mindset can serve as a positive version of the self-fulfilling prophecy, in which a manager brings out the best in a person.

Steps you can take to believe your underperforming employee wants to succeed:

  • Remember their strengths. Recall specific examples of when you saw the employee at their best. Seek others’ examples.
  • Avoid assessing performance by the entire role. Instead, assess performance by task. This will help you make a more balanced assessment.
  • When you find yourself focusing on the weaknesses of an employee, try to catch them doing something right instead.

Strategy 2: Set them up for success

Managers of underperforming employees sometimes use a “sink or swim” approach with their struggling employee. Within this mindset, the primary role of the manager is to assess performance and hold the employee accountable. The blame for underperformance, therefore, rests primarily on the employee—”She doesn’t want it badly enough,” or, “He hasn’t got what it takes.” While the employee is responsible for much of their performance, there are other important factors that are within the manager’s influence, including providing the employee with the training, guidance, and tools they need to succeed.

The managers in our study viewed their roles differently. They saw their primary objective as setting their employees up for success. This approach, also referred to as servant leadership, inverts the traditional hierarchical org chart, with the manager at the bottom, holding up their employees. Our study participants first asked themselves what role they played in the underperformance when they were confronted with an underperforming employee.

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Steps you can take to set them up for success:

Complete an honest assessment that asks the employee for feedback in the following areas:

  • Have I provided the necessary training?
  • Am I leveraging the employee’s strengths?
  • Have I been clear with my expectations?
  • Has the team and organizational culture been conducive to success?
  • Do they have the necessary tools (software, systems)?
  • Has this job changed significantly from what the employee was hired for?

Check for any health-related or personal issues getting in their way. If needed, involve your Human Resources partner for guidance to support the employee.

Strategy 3: Be transparent because you care

The majority of managers report lacking the courage to have difficult performance management conversations. Often managers evade these awkward conversations for their own need to avoid conflict or to be liked. A different version of this self-interested mindset is when a manager is overly direct (even downright mean) with the intent of complying with legal requirements to inform an employee before exiting them. In both of these approaches, the manager treats the employee as an object.

The managers from our study were different. They were direct and transparent with their employees, and provided feedback as quickly as possible. They did this, however, not for their own sake, but rather for the employee’s. Would you want to know if you weren’t meeting expectations?

Steps you can take to be transparent because you care:

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  • Do not delay the uncomfortable, direct conversations about unmet expectations.
  • Understand that being clear about an employee’s areas of opportunity doesn’t mean that you cannot continue to reinforce positive behaviors/strengths.
  •  Ask yourself if you are avoiding having a tough conversation for their sake, or to avoid your own discomfort.
  • When preparing for a difficult conversation, ask yourself, “What would I say if this were my friend/ sibling /child?” This approach can humanize your employee and create a more supportive environment.

Our study also revealed that these three strategies to treat an underperforming employee as a person did not necessarily turn around each employee’s performance. There were situations, such as a poor job fit or an extenuating personal circumstance, in which the best outcome was the employee finding a different role and/or a different employer.

This does not necessarily mean that these managers’ efforts were in vain. One participant defined his success not by whether the employee remained in their role or even at the same company. Instead, he wanted to know that in the end, he left the employee better than he found them. This approach serves as an apt mantra of the mindset to treat your underperforming employee as a person rather than as a number.


Pete Longhurst, PhD is a senior leadership development specialist in customer service at Amazon. John Austin, PhD is a professor in the School of Leadership Studies at Fielding Graduate University.
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