Managing poor performance: 5 points to remember

Managing poor performance is one of the greatest challenges a manager can face. Turning around an under-performing team member takes patience, clarity of messaging and a disciplined approach. Do it well and it pays great dividends and makes a positive impact across the whole team. Do it badly, and it’s a frustrating waste of energy!

Here are our 5 points to remember when managing an under-performing team member.

1. Check your mindset

You need to make sure you have the right mindset, otherwise you’ll sabotage your own efforts and ‘leak’ emotions that will send contradictory messages to your team member.

You can’t honestly say “I’m committed to helping you make a success of yourself at this company” while you’re privately wishing “Quit! Please quit!”. It just doesn’t work.

Adopting the right mindset as you’re managing poor performance can be quite challenging, the right mindset is not so simple or straightforward (and you may be feeling frustrated and upset too!).

It’s not just about what the company needs, it’s not just about what your team member wants, and it’s not just about the performance.

The right mindset includes care and concern for the individual, while also recognizing that they must meet the performance requirements of their role.

2. Talk with your HR team

It’s never too early to talk to your HR team about an under-performing team member. Let them know your concerns, listen to their feedback and advice, and make sure they brief you on any policy or legal considerations that may impact the journey you’re on with your team member.

You need to check your mindset, but you also need to be a realist. Not all under-performers want to improve and not all under-performers can be retained within the company. For this reason, you should keep our HR team up to date on progress too. If you do need to move to a formal performance improvement plan, or towards exiting your team member from your organization, it’s much easier if HR are already familiar with the case.

3. Get clear on expectations

Sorry, you can’t just pluck your expectations out of the air! You need to go back to the employee contract, the role profile (job description), company policy, individual goals and any other points of reference that document the performance expectations.

Get very clear on HOW your team member is expected to work, and WHAT they’re expected to achieve, based on these documents.

4. Sharpen your communication skills

Managing poor performance is fundamentally an ongoing dialogue between you and your team member. Make it easier for the two of you by applying these communication skills.

Structure your conversations

A good performance conversation has 4 steps with it.

First, ask big, open questions. You want to get your team member talking, get them sharing their perspective. Examples of big, open questions include:

  • How’s it been going these past weeks?
  • What have you been enjoying, what has been more of a drag?
  • Where do you feel you’ve been performing well? What might be areas for improvement?
  • What other challenges have you been facing?

This helps engage them in the conversation and the answers will provide you with useful insights to build on when it’s your turn to talk.

Second, give your feedback. Once you’ve heard their perspective, give your feedback. Make it clear where your team member is doing well. And make it clear where the under performance is, and what behavior you’re expecting in the future. Make sure you’re giving effective feedback and that you’re clearly defining the future behaviors and outcomes that you expect.

Be prepared for some push back from your team member. Nobody likes to be told they’re under performing. Be patient. If they’re emotional, stay calm. Be clear and consistent in your messaging. (See more below on clarity of messaging and avoiding personalizing the conversation.)

Define clear goals. Your team member should already have clear goals (otherwise how do you know they’re under performing?!). However, you’ll probably benefit from clarifying those goals. And defining FAST goals is particularly useful when you’re managing poor performance.

Using FAST goal setting adds an extra element of clarity. Goals should be Frequently discussed, Ambitious, Specific and Transparent. Use OKRs (Objectives and Key Results), to ensure that the goals are specific and measurable. This is good practice and essential when you’re managing poor performance.

(You may ask, why Ambitious? In the context of managing poor performance you should be clear with your team member that there’s an improvement required, hence, ambitious!)

Confirm action plan / next steps. You’re going to need to meet regularly until your team member is back on track, at least weekly. Confirm this plan and stick to it.

Make sure your team member knows what they’re expected to achieve before the next meeting. Make sure they know that you’re available at any time, if they have any questions or concerns.

The meetings with your under performing team member should be a commitment above all else. This is for two reasons: you want to give your team member the best chance of succeeding, and if you miss meetings your team member has a perfect excuse for continuing to under perform!

Ensure your messaging is compassionate, clear and firm

As you’re in discussion with your team member, be aware of WHAT you say (the messages you communicate) and HOW you say them (the tone: voice, body language and gestures). You should aim for clear and firm messages, with a compassionate and caring tone.

Don’t personalize the conversation

It’s important that you’re seen as representing the expectations of the company.

In times of stress it’s easy to get personal, but this approach won’t help you. It will make your team member turn defensive and personalize the disagreements.

Resist the temptation to use phrases like:

I expect you to do this.

Instead, adjust your language, use phrases that emphasize the company’s expectations:

It’s a requirement of the role that you…


As part of our way of working the company expects that…

Save the “I” for “I’m here to support you”.

For more on this topic, take a look at the biggest mistake of new managers.

5. Sometimes ‘goodbye’ is best

Sometimes there’s just not a good fit, and ‘goodbye’ is the best option.

If you get to this stage, make sure you can honestly say you’ve given your team member the opportunity to succeed and that you’ve done what’s right for you, your team and the company. If you can achieve this, then be happy that you’ve risen to the challenge of managing poor performance.

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