How to Turn around a Disengaged or Underperforming Employee

Unreliable, slow, unresponsive, inconsistent, doing the bare minimum, checked out.

These are just a few of the words you can use to describe a disengaged or underperforming employee.

The effect an underperforming employee can have on your team is devastating. Not only can they drag out projects, but they can consume much of your time as you nudge and push them to perform.

And if they’re an asshole, well, then you have even more issues.

underperforming employees - if they're an asshole they have to go

Time to get rid of them? Maybe not.

Now, the easy way out may seem like it would be to let them go.  And for the worst offenders (especially assholes) you should move on from them. But you can’t do that for everyone.

Depending on the stats you look at, approximately 70% of employees are “not engaged” or disengaged. There’s no way that all of them are bad employees.

underperforming employee may be because of a lack of engagement

And given it can easily cost over $65,000 to replace an employee when you consider recruiting, training, and lost productivity, it is much more cost effective to try to turn around underperforming employees than replace them.

Today, we’re giving you a step by step process you can use to turn around underperforming employees on your team.

Table of Contents:

  1. Make a list of what’s not working
  2. Focus on the patterns
  3. Plan to discuss everything in your next one on one
  4. Start the 1 on 1 with what they want to discuss
  5. Ask questions around areas you wanted to discuss
  6. Transition to your feedback and coaching
  7. Create concrete next steps
  8. Rinse and repeat
  9. Bonus: How to improve an underperforming manager

How to Turn Around and Motivate an Underperforming Employee

Whether they got off to a bad start, or seem to be a star losing their shine, this process can give you an approach to improve the situation for both of you.

However, before we dive in, a few important disclaimers:

  1. Consult your HR & Legal departments: This post is not legal advice. If you’re considering terminating an employee, consult experts in your company and legal team to ensure you follow all laws for your state and country.
  2. Start by looking at yourself: If someone on your team is disengaged, there’s a good chance you’re contributing to it.  Work together to improve the situation and have a mindset you’re willing to make changes, too.
  3. Believe they can change: If you start this process believing that they’re hopeless, then don’t bother. This is why most “Performance Improvement Plans” fail; they’ll see right through it and realize it’s a death sentence, not a chance to really improve employee performance.

Look at the bright side: You have the opportunity to gain another productive, engaged member of your team, delight the rest of your team that’s probably frustrated with them, and impress your boss with your management skills.

how to motivate an underperforming employee gets you better engagement

Here’s how to motivate an employee who is underperforming:

1) Make a list of what’s not working

“By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin

This is not a conversation you want to wing. You need to prepare for working with your underperforming employee to improve their performance.

The best way to do that is to set aside 15 minutes to just focus on them. Open up your preferred system for note taking and start thinking about the core issues you see with them.

During this process, you want to be specific and comprehensive.  Ask yourself:

  • What are recent examples of times they disappointed?
  • How have they let the team down? How did it affect others?
  • What specific tasks did they deliver poor work on?
  • What *specifically* was wrong with their work?
  • What are they doing that your best people do not?
  • What are they *not* doing that your best people are doing?

Building this list will give a comprehensive view of what they’re doing and where the problems are; often, there are a few recurring issues you want to focus on addressing. It also keeps you from giving them either an unclear picture, or an overwhelming one with too many requests.

This list will also help jog your memory so you have some specific examples to reference later when you want to help them understand what they need to change.

2) Focus on the patterns

As you build the list of issues out, you should start to see patterns. The recurring issues are the ones you’ll want to focus on with them. Fixing them will yield the greatest improvement overall in the shortest amount of time.

Compare to your values

Consider how their work compares to the values of your team. If they’re being sloppy and careless, but attention to detail is something the rest of the team values, that’s something you need to address.

Maintaining a high standard of work starts with the example you set. Any difference in your expectations for your team compared to your own work will be seen as hypocrisy.

However, your example is not enough. From there, it’s all about coaching your people. It’s the act of teaching them in moments they fail to meet the standard, and reinforcing with praise when they do, that leads to a consistent, high performing team.

As Hall of Fame football coach Bill Walsh wrote in The Score Takes Care of Itself:

Bill Walsh high standards sky is the limit side quote get lighthouse

By building a list of examples and taking the time to reflect, you can raise the standard bar for your team, and help your underperforming employee understand where they should focus efforts to improve.

3) Plan to discuss it in your next one on one

Now that you have notes on what you want to discuss, and the key patterns of behavior and work you want to change, add it to your plans for your next one on one.

You do plan agendas for your one on ones, right?

If not, read why you need one on one agendas here.

Why not a separate meeting to talk about employee performance?

When you make a special meeting, it puts a lot of weight on an issue. It can really scare people, and make them clam up before the meeting even starts. They may even fear you’re going to fire them by the end of the discussion.

By instead having the discussion within the confines of your one on one, it can become a natural part of the discussion. You’d be surprised how often an opening in your discussion will provide the right opportunity to talk about the issues you’re seeing with them.  It’s why Andy Grove, former CEO and cofounder of Intel, wrote of one on ones:

underperforming employees can be turned around with one on ones

As a manager, one on ones should be a swiss army knife for you. Depending on the situation, you can talk about:

When you talk about a variety of issues in your one on ones, all centered on them, it gives you the ability to tackle anything that comes up, without having to schedule separate meetings. It maximizes the value of a meeting already on your schedule, and avoids scaring people with the dreaded, “when do you have time for us to talk about X?”

If you don’t have a one on one coming up soon for them, consider having them more frequently until you feel their Task Relevant Maturity has improved.

how to motivate an underperforming employee - ask whats on their mind first

4) Start the 1 on 1 with what they want to discuss

This step is very underrated.  Do not start your one on one going straight into your feedback and coaching or you will regret it.

Get context first.

Someone’s poor performance could be due to problems at home or work, being overwhelmed, not enjoying the work they have, changes in their goals and interests, burnout, or any number of other reasons.

You want to find that out before you jump into your feedback.

Avoid putting your foot in your mouth, or missing out on a root problem you weren’t aware of.

A story: Crucial context changes plans

In a past job, I had a team member I was managing who had clearly dropped the ball on our recruiting process. They hired someone well below our standards. Before we let them go, they had caused a lot of headaches for the team and our customers.

Fortunately, before I started going into feedback of all the problems I found when I looked into the hiring process they used, I asked how they were doing.

What I discovered was they were totally overwhelmed, and they knew they had failed with that hire. It completely changed our discussion from fixing the hiring process, to helping them balance their responsibilities.

We still talked about what went wrong in hiring, but because of the added context, we fixed the root problem. I also avoided spending too much time on an issue they were already beating themselves up about, and that wasn’t the root problem.

Getting context is why Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi encourages you to assume positive intent with everyone you work with:

when working with underperforming employees assume positive intent

There are two sides to every story. Understanding some of their perspective makes them feel heard and more likely to listen to the feedback you’re about to share. 

You may not always luck out like I did to hear about a root cause issue from them, but you’ll be *very* glad you let them speak first when things like that do come up.

5) Ask questions around areas you wanted to discuss

Not everyone will be up front about problems they’re having. And even if they are, it’s important to ask good questions to learn more.

The more context you have to understand their perspective, the better your coaching and feedback can be framed in the most effective way to help them.

Some possible questions you can ask:

  • How are you doing?
  • How has your workload felt recently? Too much, not enough, or okay?
  • How do you feel [problem project] is going?
  • What do you find most challenging in your role? How have you tried to handle that?
  • How would you rate your work on the last [project/task/etc]? Why that rating?
  • What do you enjoy least in your role? What do you enjoy most? Why?

With these questions, you’re getting a strong picture of their world view so that you can build a great solution. It’s why SoulCycle’s former CEO, Melanie Whelan, advocates strongly for leaders to be great listeners:

Listen to your underperforming employee before jumping into feedback

As you ask these questions, all your preparation will start to pay off. Their answers will help paint a picture of their worldview.

When you combine that view with your feedback you want to discuss, the path will become clear for how to move forward effectively, getting to the root cause of the team member’s issues.

6) Transition to your feedback and coaching

When you feel like you’ve heard everything you need to and have more than enough context, you can start to move into your coaching.

You may tell them something like, “I’m glad you’ve brought this up, I wanted to talk to you about…” which allows you to transition to the area that seems best to talk about.

how to motivate an underperforming employee

Use examples to guide the underperforming employee

As you dig into the most important areas to address, tap into the examples you listed out when you were preparing. They can help illustrate not only what needs to be different, but also how what they did affected their team, you, or the company.

Everyone’s worldview is different. Its easy for someone to be completely unaware of problems they may be causing for others, especially if they work remotely and didn’t see reactions or hear conversations from their colleagues.

Confirm understanding and get specific

Talking about a problem is not enough. Make sure it’s clear what needs to be different going forward, and that they understand why their work was below standards. Make sure they’re actively listening by giving them room to demonstrate understanding in the discussion:

make sure your underperforming employee is actively listening

Look for them to not just parrot back what you told them, but to describe it in their own words. That makes it clear they understand what you’ve talked about that needs to change.

Your specific examples and explaining how the issues affected others can paint a more vivid picture that helps them understand your coaching more clearly.

7) Create concrete next steps

Talking about problems and ensuring they understand the issues is a great first step. However, without clear next steps, it’s unlikely anything will change.

To really lead to a turn around for your underperforming employee, you need to establish what you expect them to have done or changed by next time you meet. As famous leadership expert Peter Drucker has written:

how to motivate an underperforming employee

Setting next steps is powerful for a number of reasons:

  1. Create Change: Identifying the next opportunity to apply your feedback will make the change stick.
  2. Build Momentum: After coming to an understanding of the problems, establishing next steps builds momentum towards ongoing improvement.
  3. Ensure Accountability: By setting some next steps, and when you’ll check in (your next one on one), you make it clear that they need to start change now, not procrastinate.

When you set these next steps, there’s also a few things you can do to make them most effective:

  1. Work Together: Show that you’re working together to improve things by agreeing to something you will do, too. It shows you’re willing to work with them based on what they shared in the meeting.
  2. Meet Weekly: You should have weekly one on ones with them until they improve their performance. This leaves no room for procrastination and you can catch any slips before they go on too long.
  3. Email Your Agreement: Reinforcing next steps in writing leaves no room for misunderstanding. Research also shows doing so makes work more likely to be completed, and done faster. (Our software, Lighthouse, can automatically send the followup email and help you remember to check in on them next time.)

You’ve put a lot of effort into improving your team member if you’ve come this far. Don’t let it go to waste by not taking action and setting next steps.

8) Rinse and repeat

If you put in the work up front, the first meeting you have to discuss this will be a big breakthrough. You will both understand the full scope of the situation and the most logical path forward.

Your work isn’t done.

Every week, you’ll need to check in to see how they’re progressing. Reflect on how they’re doing and keep a closer eye on their work in the areas they need to improve.

Celebrate and reinforce their wins with praise, and talk through any problems that reoccur or aren’t delivered on. Your attention signals to them you’re taking this seriously, and that they need to maintain momentum on improving.

Importantly, don’t underestimate the power of praise as they improve their work. As Mary Kay Ash, builder of the Mary Kay Cosmetics empire says:

use praise to turn around an underperforming employee

Praising their improvement shows you’re listening and taps into a key form of motivation.

The Payoff

Your ongoing efforts will lead to one of two things happening:

  1. They get better: As you continue working with them, you’ll see fewer and fewer of the problems. Eventually, it will be clear you don’t need to be as hands on, because they’re a high performing team member now.
  2. Nothing changes: Despite your best efforts, and documented attempts to bring change, they haven’t improved. Deadlines are missed, and your one on ones on the issue become a broken record.

If they get better, congratulations! You’ve turned around an underperforming employee and added another productive member to your team at little cost beyond your time.

And if they don’t change, you now have evidence you can take to HR or senior leadership to discuss performance improvement plans, termination, or other paths (see legal disclaimer at the beginning of this post).

bad manager dilbert how to motivate an underperforming employee

Bonus: How to improve an underperforming employee who is a manager

In my experience, most* bad managers aren’t bad people; instead, people who are struggling as managers are some combination of:

  • Overwhelmed: Too much on their plate, too many conflicting demands, too big a team, etc.
  • Unsure: Analysis paralysis, lack of knowledge of how to handle a situation, imposter syndrome, etc can all make a leader fail to take necessary action.
  • Unsupported: A lot of senior leaders abdicate their responsibility to help coach, develop, and guide the managers reporting to them, which causes many first time managers to fail hard. 
  • Stress: It’s very hard to be a good manager if stress has gone well past their upper limit. This can be too many fires or on call moments at work, personal issues impacting work, or any number of COVID-related challenges.  When you’re stressed out, it often brings out the worst in you, which is a recipe for disaster with your team.

Regardless of the reason, it’s essential you get to the bottom of the issues and help them improve; when a manager is struggling or disengaged, it trickles down to the rest of their team with something Gallup’s research found and calls “the Cascade Effect”:

how to motivate an underperforming employee

Ask their team for input first

When you believe you see struggles for a manager reporting to you, the first thing you should do is get some perspective from the team members that report to them.

As a mid to senior level leader, you have a lot on your plate, so you won’t see nearly as much as the people who work with the manager every single day.

You want to tap into that valuable knowledge and perspective.

Not only will this help you diagnose and identify the key issues, but it will also build loyalty and help with retention. If you’ve ever had a bad boss, you know how frustrating it is, and it only gets more frustrating when it feels like no one will do anything about it.

By sitting down and talking with their team members, you can learn what the shortcomings and problems are, and make the team members feel heard.

use skip level 1 on 1s to improve an underperforming employee that is a manager

Use Skip Level 1 on 1s to improve an underperforming manager

These meetings we’re suggesting you have with the manager’s team have a name. They’re called skip level 1 on 1s, and they’re a common meeting to have on a semi-annual basis for performance reasons and a lot more.

You should have these meetings for a variety of reasons, and learning about performance and coaching opportunities are some of the best value you can get from them.

If you’re new to skip level 1 on 1s, or want to improve them, then these links are perfect to help you every step of the way:

When you use skip level 1 on 1s to learn about issues, examples of problems, and how the manager is affecting their team, you make the notes you’ll present to the manager in Step 6 all the more effective. 

It’s no longer just your opinion, but also the insights and perspective of their team. This is both more persuasive, and creates more urgency since it’s a consensus of feedback.

This can be a lot of work, so if you want help staying organized on all of it, then sign up for Lighthouse so you can use our Skip Level 1 on 1s feature; we automatically route talking points from a skip level meeting to the manager’s 1 on 1 so you remember to talk about it.

Even better, you can have the struggling manager use Lighthouse, too, which makes it easier for them to improve, and gives you an easy way to have some oversight on how they’re doing.

See for yourself the difference we can make for you and your team by signing up for your 21-day free trial here.

turn around underperforming employee and you'll have a superpower

Turning around underperforming employees is a super power

It’s not easy to turn around an underperforming employee on your team, but this process can help give you a good shot of doing so. And developing this skill is one that can boost your career greatly in a variety of ways:

  • Fewer hiring mistakes: Rather than having to fire and then replace every struggling employee, you save a lot of time and money by turning them around.
  • Saving inherited teams: As you advance in your career, you’re more likely to inherit team members you didn’t choose. Helping boost their performance and learning to work with them will save you a lot of time and effort otherwise spent constantly hiring and replacing.
  • Building loyal teams: When you stick with someone when they’re struggling, they (and any friends at work) will see you don’t give up on people easily. This will often mean they will stick out tough times with you as well.
  • Turn arounds get noticed: The skill to fix problems with struggling team members is one that’s noticed by senior leaders, and shows you can be trusted with more responsibility. We’ve seen multiple Lighthouse managers get promoted because of this.

If you’re looking for a way to stay organized on all of this and follow the above process more easily, then sign up to try Lighthouse to help you. As one manager wrote:

“When I previously ran our Support Team, I had 2 team members that struggled in different ways, and I was able to use 1:1s in Lighthouse to spot patterns of concern and then address in a clear manner, creating action items for improvement, and follow up in more frequent 1:1s documenting improvement. Through this both team members improved and have excelled.”

Not only are those team members now great contributors there, this manager was promoted due to their great work, and in particular recognized for those turnarounds.

Being able to turn around underperforming employees is a hugely valuable skill that will make you an asset in any organization. Put these tips into action and you may be surprised what changes and improvement you can create.

Want to continue learning about 1 on 1s? This post is one of dozens we have to help you be your best in any situation. Find our comprehensive guide to one on one meetings here.

turn around underperforming employees by holding standards like Bill Walsh