DS Leadership Life Blog: Under-Performing


You Are Underperforming…Now What


If you have referred to a member of your team as an “underperformer” more than three times…

It’s another day at the office and you are well aware of the 2 o’clock meeting on your schedule that afternoon.  You are scheduled to meet with Joan.  Just seeing the name on your calendar makes you take a large inhale followed by an exasperated sigh. Hopefully you can just hit the highlights, stay on track and get it over with as soon as possible.

Joan has been the Vice President of Corporate Accounts for about 3 years and her track record with leading her direct reports has been less than ideal.  Also, her teams aren’t really meeting expectations.  You’ve pointed this out to Joan on several occasions over the past year and each time it seems that she “gets it” but the performance seems to be the same. You know it isn’t going well and what scares you the most is that you’re going to have to answer for it too.

One of the challenges that leaders face is the question of: What do I do with an under-performer? Do I just fire them?  Well, that certainly is one choice and on occasion the best one however, there may be several steps that can even make that process easier if it comes to that. Some things to consider:

  • Were the expectations made clear every step of the way from the beginning of employment and onward? As a leader, this is important not only to be sure there are clear agreements but also for progress, success and struggle to be identified early on and at regular intervals objectively. As well, as an organization grows and changes, expectations can change and making sure that all are aligned is critical for people to perform at their best level.
  • Was an agreement made regarding the expectations? In coaching leaders, this is often part of the conversation that gets missed. A leader will point out that expectations aren’t being met but forget to find out if the person in charge of meeting them really has an agreement to do so.  Seems silly, but trust me, this is critical.
  • Was a pathway put in place for the employee to come to the leader at the first sign of performance expectations not being met at certain intervals?  Often, the trigger in place for identifying under-performance comes from the top down.  However, leaders can also establish a pathway and expectation for employees to provide that trigger to their leader and to now be in the position of seeking learning and collaboration for success.
  • Were regular coaching conversations conducted when performance issues first appeared?  These open, clear and early conversations are important for the leader to allow themselves to avoid creating stories about why the employee is under-performing and to continue to evaluate performance objectively. As well, the employee is not wondering why this wasn’t brought to their attention sooner (this can also be mitigated by following the second bullet point).
  • Were creative ideas solicited from the employee to support success or as the leader did you offer all of them yourself?  This can often disempower employees from doing their best and as a leader it does not allow you to see the potential learning and knowledge gaps that an employee may have.  Once this is understood, the leader is able to provide real coaching tips and insight for the employee with possible suggested next actions.  This allows for collaboration and for the employee to feel supported.
  • Are you ready as a leader to admit when you may have the wrong person in place? Often leaders feel bad when they know the employee isn’t capable of meeting expectations and avoiding conflict becomes the only choice… for a while. This avoidance results in a certain level of what I call UPR: “under-performer resentment”.  And this leads to that exasperated sigh that leaders experience whenever that name shows up on their calendar.





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