Aug 24, 2020

How to Coach an Underperforming Employee

Underperforming employees are one of the great frustrations of any manager. You can spend months creating a perfectly conceived business plan—only for flawed humans and the messy real world to come in and foul everything up. 

But before you start pointing fingers, take a deep breath and look at the big picture. Employees are, to a large degree, products of their environments, so working with an underperforming employee begins by making sure that they have the environment necessary to do the job being asked of them.

In this article, we’ll look at how to guide an employee back to steady progress toward organizational goals.

Clarify Mission, Goals, and Priorities

An underperforming employee is defined by not meeting goals. Unfortunately, in many organizations, employees’ goals are unclear. So before you sit down with your employee, clarify for everyone your organization’s mission, goals, and priorities, as well as the metrics used to measure progress. 

A mission is your organization’s top overall priority, goals are short- and long-term steps toward a mission, and metrics are how you measure progress toward those goals. Priorities are how goals are ranked.

For example, let’s say you work for a widget company with the mission “to produce the greatest widgets possible in a sustainable and profitable way.” As head of the sales team, you contribute to that mission by bringing in revenue, and your current goal is to increase sales by 5% this year. You’ll measure progress toward that goal with metrics like weekly and monthly sales, but other indirect metrics—like the number of cold calls and the number of client meetings your salespeople are taking—can be good indicators, too.

Priorities are especially tricky because we want everything to be top-priority—but then nothing ends up being a priority. If your widget salespeople need to bring in new clients but also increase spending by existing clients, they may have to choose which priority to pursue more aggressively. Make sure they know what is expected. 

If goals and priorities are not understood, employee underperformance may come from misunderstanding or confusion.

Consider Conditions Outside Their Control

Workers should try to keep their personal lives from interrupting work, but sometimes this becomes impossible. Workers and their families have acute medical emergencies, extreme weather can interrupt routines, or local and national political turbulence could be making life difficult for your team. Stress has a noted effect on job performance.

Environmental factors that disrupt work could come from something as simple as a poor office setup. If your employee works from home, they may not have found a distraction-free workspace. In an office, there may have been changes to the physical space that are affecting productivity.

Ask your employees how they’re doing. They may appreciate a sympathetic ear to explain pressing non-work issues, or they may be grateful for the opportunity to highlight logistical problems. We’ve heard from a manager who discovered that his team of field operatives was running out of gas money between reimbursements. Since they did not control where and when they were told to drive, they couldn’t be held responsible for that! Resolving this logistical situation was essential to correcting performance.

Ask About Personal Mission and Goals

Underperforming employees may be acting out due to a lack of motivation or a feeling of meaninglessness in their work. This can be overcome by highlighting how organizational goals can advance their personal ones, creating a win-win situation. To do this, you need to know your employees’ personal career goals.

Learning your employees’ personal missions and goals should happen during your first one-on-one, preferably on their first day. If you missed that—better late than never. Also, goals can change, which may explain sudden underperforming behavior. Ask your employees what they now hope to get out of their positions. See if you can adjust their responsibilities accordingly or highlight the skills and experience they’re gaining that will be useful for their futures. 

Locate Where in the Process the Problem Is

Perhaps your employee is also frustrated with these shortcomings but doesn’t know how to address the problem. Examine their whole work process to find the bottleneck.

For example, let’s take the widget salesperson again. Maybe they’re working hard but not getting the right outcomes: they just can’t get their sales numbers up. You pull up their numbers and find that they’re making sales calls and attending pitch meetings in volumes comparable to their teammates, but they’re not getting comparable conversion rates to actual sales. So the salesperson is putting in the blood, sweat, and tears—but their persuasion skills need work. 

Or maybe you find the inverse: a salesperson has great conversion rates, but low outreach volume. You might find they got lost on client calls or other tasks and need some help with time management. In either case, offer additional training and temporarily increased oversight.

Ask Employees to Outline Their Plans to Achieve Goals

Asking employees to create their own job descriptions is a classic manager trick…er, we mean “strategy.” No, it’s not the same as making them figure out their jobs with nothing to go on. As stated above, employees should have a clear understanding of the organization’s mission and the goals for their team as well as each individual employee specifically. With those tools, employees should fill in what they’re going to do and when to hit their goals.

Match Personal Strengths and Skills to the Job

Do you have a social butterfly digitizing archives in a stockroom? Or vice versa—maybe a computer whiz struggling with client services all day? Evaluate your employees’ strengths and weaknesses honestly and match them to their proper tasks.

Revamp Your Communication Schedule

Ideally, your team might run on autopilot—but that’s not how real life works. Progress requires follow-up, so stay in close touch with your team. They might have been afraid to approach you for guidance and clarification, so institute regular meetings for progress updates. After an adjustment, contact with employees should be more frequent and in-depth until you’re sure that everyone is on the same page.

If you try all of these steps and your employee is still underperforming, you may need to reevaluate their place at your organization. But by looking at your managerial process and the environment of your employees, you should be able to address most issues without reaching that point.

About the author

Ben Glaser
Ben Glaser
Ben has almost a decade of experience covering personal finance and business. From 2014–2017, he was blog editor and spokesperson for the shopping website DealNews.com, where he regularly appeared on programs like Good Morning America and Fox and Friends to offer consumer advice. Ben graduated from Harvard with a BA in English and lives in the Hudson Valley of New York.

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