How to Turn around a Disengaged or Underperforming Employee

by Jason Evanish, CEO Get Lighthouse, Inc.

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 employee - 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.

Gallup employee 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. Preventing Future Underperformance of Your Employees

How to 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 were 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 advises you to deal with an underperforming employee by setting high expectations

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 employees 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.

Instead of 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 co-founder of Intel, wrote of one on ones:

underperforming employee 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 on 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 an underperforming employee assume positive intent

There are two sides to every story. Understanding some of their perspectives 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 upfront 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.

Questions to ask an underperforming employee

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 worldview 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 the 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 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. It's easy for someone to be completely unaware of problems they may be causing for others, especially if they work remotely and don'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:

Degree of active 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 explanations of 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 turnaround for your underperforming employees, you need to establish what you expect them to have done or changed by the next time you meet. As famous leadership expert Peter Drucker has written:

how to motivate an underperforming employee

Setting the 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 toward ongoing improvement.
  3. Ensure Accountability: By setting some next steps, and when you 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 are 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 the next steps in writing leaves no room for misunderstanding. Research also shows doing so makes work more likely to be completed, and done faster.

If you've come this far, you've put a lot of effort into improving your team members. Don't let it go to waste by not taking action and setting the next steps.

8) Rinse and repeat

If you put in the work upfront, 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).

Preventing Future Underperformance of Your Employees

Now that you’ve put in the hard work to turn an underperforming employee around, let’s make sure it sticks so you don’t have to go through this again. 

Set Clear Expectations

Ambiguity is your enemy. Your employees should know what success looks like and what they should strive for. That means defining goals clearly with them and defining ideal outcomes for their big projects from the start. 

To do this well:

  • Collaborate with them to set their goals and the expected outcomes together. This ensures their buy-in, and gives them a chance to raise any concerns.
  • Break down larger goals into smaller, measurable milestones. These build confidence and give you clear checkpoints along the way where you can troubleshoot, coach, and celebrate wins.
  • Use your 1 on 1s to check in on their key goals regularly. This is a great place to review recent work, answer their questions, and provide coaching. 

By being intentional from the start, you can keep your team on track and motivated consistently.

Further reading:

Want to learn more about goal setting and helping your team grow? Start here:

Provide Ongoing Feedback

One of the most frustrating things for team members is to be told they’re doing poor work after hearing nothing for weeks or months. They want to be given a fair chance to improve and fix things when there are problems, and they want to hear from you how they’re doing, good or bad. 

Best of all, giving your people regular feedback instead of waiting for formal reviews fuels their growth and development and keeps especially your best people motivated.

And that feedback should come in two forms:

  1. How they can improve: constructive feedback, when coming from a place of care, motivates employees to keep striving to get better. 
  2. What they’re doing well: praise is like water for flowers. It helps them bloom. It also lets your team members know you notice the good things they do as well as the bad. With praise, they’ll know what to keep doing. 

Make coaching and feedback a regular habit and you’ll find many problems with your team never become a big deal. Instead, you’ll keep your team and projects on track and your employees motivated. 

Further Reading:

Need more help on how to give feedback and praise? Start here:

Start with great onboarding

A strong onboarding process is one of the best ways to prevent underperformance from ever happening. When you invest time upfront to properly integrate new hires, you set them up for success from day one.

As we previously wrote in our post about improving the employee onboarding process, there are several things you can do to make it more effective:

  • Write out a detailed onboarding plan so nothing falls through the cracks. Break down key goals and provide checklists where helpful.
  • Make open communication a priority through regular 1-on-1s. Check in frequently, answer questions, and provide coaching for your new team member from day 1.
  • Assign the new hire a buddy to help guide them, explain processes, and introduce them socially to the team. This gives them another person they can ask for help in case you’re busy and helps them feel connected to the team faster.

Employees who feel welcomed, supported, and understand expectations from their first weeks are much more likely to succeed in their roles. They'll have clarity on what success looks like, resources to tap into when they need help and build rapport faster with you and your team. 

Further Reading: 

If you want to master onboarding and build strong relationships from day one, be sure to check out our posts:

turn around underperforming employee and you'll have a superpower

Turning around underperforming employees is a superpower

It's not easy to turn around an underperforming employee on your team, but this process can help give you a good shot at 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.

How do you correct an employee with weak performance?

The key to improving an employee with weak performance is to approach it with the mindset of a coach.

If you follow these steps, you can turn around even the most struggling underperformers:

  1. Make a list of what's not working
  2. Identify the key patterns
  3. Plan to discuss 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 until they're thriving

What do you say to an underperforming employee?

An underperforming employee deserves empathy like any other team member. What you say should show you care about them and then focus on the facts.

To help them understand what they need to change, take time to prepare a few things:
1) A list of the most important issues for them to work on
2) Examples of when those issues occurred
3) Specific details on how their weak areas affect their work, their teammates, and the company

Go over those things with them and follow these 8 steps to turn around an underperforming employee.

What is an underperforming employee?

An underperforming employee is someone who does not deliver up to the standards of you or your company. It means their work is late, sloppy, missing key items, or inadequate in some way.

The manager of an underperforming employee is responsible for addressing the issues and helping them improve, which we outline how to do in a post here.

How to motivate an underperforming employee?

To motivate an underperforming employee, focus on the impact their work has. Let them know how their work matters and how they affect your team, and your company.

For their issues that are hurting your company, the same still applies, except you should focus on how they need to change and improve.

Jason Evanish

Jason Evanish

As the founder and CEO of Get Lighthouse, Inc, Jason and the Lighthouse team have helped managers grow their leadership skills in dozens of countries around the world. They’ve worked with a variety of companies from non-profits to high growth startups, and government organizations to well known, publicly traded companies. Jason has also been featured in publications including NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company.

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