How to understand and reinspire underperforming employees

underperforming employees

Source: That Startup Show.

We’ve all seen them before.

We’ve either worked alongside them, lead them, been served by them, or encountered them where we are the customer.

Or we are one of them

Unfortunately, not everyone enjoys their job, or are aware of their purpose every morning when they wake up, and these are two of the most common causes of underperformance in the workplace.

Managing underperformance can be one of the most challenging parts of a management role.

Humans don’t respond well to being told what to do or forced to do something. Defences are likely to be triggered and it becomes an ‘us versus them’ confrontation that can become quite a lengthy and vexed process.

This is especially the case if it is not their capability that has caused the underperformance, but more their dislike for their job or not knowing their purpose.

Our brains are all wired differently, with different skills, different default modalities and different emotional drivers.

Based on this wiring, there are things that we love doing, things we don’t mind doing and things that we dislike doing.

Tapping into the things that we love doing naturally means our motivation and performance increases and our mind gets more satisfaction. 

When we love doing something, we put more time and effort into building our skills and getting results.

When we have a very clear purpose as to why we are doing it, our ability and outcome reach even higher levels.

Underperformance tends to occur when we are doing too much of the things that we dislike or don’t mind doing, and not enough of the things we love doing.

It is then that we become an ‘underperformer’. 

Many leaders tend to avoid addressing underperformance until it has gone on for too long.

We then find ourselves taking on a dictatorial style of leadership to tell the ‘underperformer’ what they are doing, or not doing, and putting a process in place that we are hoping will either miraculously get them performing again or move them on.

What usually happens is a very drawn out stressful process that doesn’t end well. 

What if we first had a conversation asking what was causing the underperformance?

What if we asked them how much they enjoy their job and what they do?

What if we worked with them to reignite their purpose or to find their unique talent which may be better suited to another department or another workplace?

Remembering the ultimate outcome is to have them performing, or no longer in the role. It is easier to work with people, than against them.

I’ve come across several people that were underperforming, and at the end of performance management, were ready to be pushed out the door, only to see that they were in the wrong job using the wrong skills. 

Here are five questions to start the underperformance conversation using emotional intelligence.

  1. I’ve noticed that your performance has decreased lately, is everything OK?
  2. Do you like the job that you do?
  3. What is your favourite part of your job and what is the part that you really dislike doing?
  4. What do you feel is needed to revert your performance back to what we both know you are capable of?
  5. How can I help or support you to get your performance back to what we know you can deliver?

If they are not interested or putting in the effort to help themselves then, by all means, adopt a dictatorial style of leadership, setting very clear expectations of what is required. 

But remember, everyone truly can excel at something. The question is: ‘How can we help them to find what their unique talent is, so they can perform for themselves, and in line with the expectations of everyone around them?’


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