Author: Jason Walker, Board Director & MD, Hays New Zealand
They had all of the right skills, gave all of the best answers, and showed such potential in their interview. They even got off to a promising start after they joined your team. But somewhere between then and now, your employee has gone from a rising star, to an underperformer.
Your next course of action would be much clearer if this employee had simply become complacent and apathetic. On the contrary, you know that actually, they really do care about this job – you can tell by how much they beat themselves up when they don’t succeed. The problem isn’t their skills, their enthusiasm or their commitment. It’s their confidence. The question is, how can you give them the impetus to start performing better, and soon, without kicking them whilst they’re down?
Nip the issue in the bud
If managed early, you will have the ability to re-energise this person and transform their performance, returning them to their former glory quickly. If you leave the issue too long, however, the more mistakes this underperformer will make, and the more this will impact the morale of the rest of your team who have to pick up the pieces. Break the cycle now, get a meeting in the diary ASAP, and start planning all of the points you want to raise. As you approach the meeting, remember the below:
1. Give balanced feedback
Whilst you do need to make it clear to the underperformer that their recent performance isn’t up to standard, it is important that you strike the right balance between being too harsh or, conversely, too soft. Therefore I would advise that you start the conversation by discussing the positives and asking them what they think their strengths are – it’s very empowering for someone to identify their strong suits and see positive reinforcement from you. Next, outline to your underperformer what you think they are doing, or at least, were doing well.
Now explain what needs improving, and be specific. Remember not to get personal or make sweeping statements about their character – keep to the facts. For instance, if the underperformer often misses deadlines, don’t tell them they are a disorganised person who can’t follow instructions. Instead, raise the last few times they missed a deadline, and the wider impact that this had on the rest of the team. Ask them if they can explain the reasons behind their shortcomings, as this may give you a clearer idea on how you can help them, which brings me to my next point.
2. Let them know you’re on their side
Next consider what practical and emotional support you can offer, be it mentoring, refresher training or shadowing another team. You can also boost their self-belief by being relatable and sharing your own experiences.
If you have faced similar challenges in your career, tell your underperformer how you overcame them. This can inspire your underperformer, make them feel more comfortable talking to you and give them the confidence to do better. You should also give them more of a sense of purpose, explaining why they are valued, and reiterating the impact a strong performance will have on the team and business.
Then put together a progress plan for your underperformer which sets out measurable actions and targets, check they are aligned to it, and keep a close eye on their progress from here on in.
3. Keep the momentum going
As I say, you should be monitoring the underperformer’s progress on a regular basis. Constructive feedback is key to an improved performance, but it’s best done in a space where you can be open with them and they can be open with you, as opposed to publicly and in front of their peers.
If you see your underperformer making progress, it is important that you acknowledge this and celebrate their successes. At this point you may also feel more in a position to give them increased trust and autonomy, which can, in turn, be a real confidence boost. You can provide stretch opportunities, and tell them why you think they are ready, but reiterate that they must be transparent if they need your help.
Ultimately, your objective is to make sure that your underperformer understands the gravity of situation, whilst giving them the confidence to turn this situation around.
Hopefully the above advice will be enough to get this employee back on track, because as you know, you can only be a coach for so long. If all else fails, you will need to have a serious conversation about whether this employee is right for your team and vice versa, but this should be a last resort. More often than not, with the above plan in place you should see results.
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