Published On: Mon, Jan 13th, 2020

How to Manage Under-Performing Staff

In an ideal world all staff will always achieve their objectives and hit their targets. The reality is quite different obviously. While the majority of employees will achieve or exceed their individual goals, there will always be some who struggle. What is the best way to deal with under-performing staff? What are the best practices? Should we be harsh or supportive? This article explores some of the best practices.

photo/ Rebrand Cities

Firstly, for any team manager or business manager that is managing employee performance, it is critical that they have had formal training and certification on the topic. If they have not already done so, it is important that they attend a performance management course and receive the essential training and certification.

Resolution of underperformance starts with clearly defining the level of the underperformance, and this in turn demands that a clear definition for “successful performance” has already been defined, agreed and communicated. This “baseline” performance target needs to have been established & communicated during the previous appraisal or induction meeting. In order to determine whether an employee is underperforming it is essential to identify clear evidence of where the baseline has not been reached. Examples of specific work, appraisals, 360-degree reviews may all be used.  It is only then that we have identified the gap of underperformance. This “performance gap” should be the area of focus going forward.

Before we help someone to improve their performance we need to understand exactly what aspect fo their performance is causing the problem. In order to do this, it is important to explore what exactly performance is. An interesting insight is that Performance = Ability multiplied by Motivation

  • Ability is the person’s aptitude, as well as the training and resources supplied by the organization.
  •  Motivation is the product of desire and commitment. 

This tells us that the root cause of the underpeformance may not be down to poor motivation for example. It may simply be a lack of ability (at least currently) for the job in question. The important point here is that incorrect diagnosis may simply exacerbate the problem e.g. mistakenly believing that effort and motivation are the problem could lead a manager to increase pressure to perform even though the real issue is the individuals “ability” to perform the role. This in turn could then lead to even worse performance.

Some “Do’s and Don’ts” may be helpful to review at this point.


  • Act sooner rather than later.
    •  It is unfair to let a false impression of good performance develop.
  •  Have a frank and honest conversation.
  •  Consider how you might be contributing to the issue.
  •  Create a measurable performance development plan together.
  •  Have a clear follow-up process.
  •  Document each step and commitment.


  • Forget to follow up
    •  Even when high priorities / fires occur.
    •  Regular monitoring is the key to success.
  •  Waste time coaching an employee that refuses to accept that there is an issue.
  •  Discuss specific individual performance issues with the wider team.
    •  Maintain respect and confidentiality as appropriate.

If capabilities have been identified as the root cause of the underperformance then the manager has various options available to them. Whetton and Cameron have developed the following model:

  1. Resupply – are additional resources required?
  2.  Retrain – have skills become outdated?
  3.  Refit – could it be appropriate to adapt the role itself?
    1.  Could a different combination of tasks be a better fit? Reallocate others.
  4.  Reassign – reducing the demands of the job, but keep it challenging.
    1.  And avoid using demotion as a punishment.
  5.  Release – if you have determined that nothing more can be done to support the employee, it may simply be time to party ways.

If motivation has been determined as the core issue then Whetton and Cameron recommend the following:

  • Setting of performance goals.
  •  Provision of performance assistance.
  •  Provision of performance feedback.
  •  Once you have made your absolute best effort, and have reasonably exhausted all options it is probably time to let the person go…respectfully!

Finally, what is a reasonable timeframe to allow the individual turn around their poor performance? The answer is usually “it depends”. The nature of the job itself will be a major factor. More complex roles will require a longer turnaround period.  Your organization’s own procedures and practices as well as any agreements with trade unions must be factored in. The employee’s past performance, the size and administrative resources of your organization and the employee’s personal circumstances ( e.g. bereavement, depression, divorce) all need to be taken into consideration.

Managing underperformers within your organization is a delicate process, but one that needs to be addressed quickly and in a structured manner. Understanding the root causes of the underperformance (ability or motivation?) is critical. 

Author: Nataliya Stefanus

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