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 underperformers than replace them.

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

How to Turn Around 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 turn things around.

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

Here’s what to do in just a few simple steps:

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.

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 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 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?

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 in the meeting. 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 can 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:

  • Topics to build rapport and trust with them
  • Their career growth and skill development
  • Personal and team issues affecting their work
  • Coaching, feedback, and praise
  • Their feedback and ideas

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.

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 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

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.

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.

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 think [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 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.

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.

Use examples

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 what 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:

to improve and underperforming employee, you must set next steps like Peter Drucker says

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. (An app like Lighthouse can help automate this for you)

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.

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).

It’s not easy to turn around an underperformer on your team, but this process can help give you a good shot of doing so.

If you’re looking for a way to stay organized on all of this with some helpful structure, 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 team members is a hugely valuable skill that will make you an asset in any organization.

What advice do you have for others looking to turn around underperforming employees?