9 Tips on Dealing with Poor Performance in Your Team
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9 Tips on Dealing with Poor Performance in Your Team

Joe Neely Joe Neely Last Updated:
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Handling poor performance in your team members means mastering performance management.

Get the right concepts, tools, and techniques for handling the wide variety of personalities, skill levels, and remember, teams go through various stages of development.

Assembling a new team or adding in new members can present social, communication, and workflow challenges. Likewise, motivating a well-established team past mediocrity and into excellence can mean stirring up employees’ creative juices.

In all phases of team growth and operation, you must continually provide perspective and inspire employee engagement with your company’s core mission.

Define Performance Management

  • So, what is performance management?
  • Does your executive team have a working performance management definition?

SAP/SuccessFactors VP Steve Hunt said,

There are so many factors influencing the effectiveness of the performance management process. Some employees are more competitive and selfconfident than others. You also have manager differences – you can have a great process but if the manager implements it poorly that impacts the situation.

Today’s managers apply insights from neuroscience and psychology to understand employee motivation and productivity.

Hunt encourages executives and team leaders to dig deep and find the appropriate data.

To be relevant, performance management data must come from real-life situations that match your industry and workplace as closely as possible.

1) Understand the Basic Components of Performance

Business experts define employee performance as a combination of two factors, ability and motivation.

In this case, ability includes both the skills and aptitude an employee brings to an organization – as well as the training, resources, and support provided by the employer.

Motivation involves both extrinsic motivations (pay, benefits, etc.) and intrinsic motivations (mission, commitment, passion, etc.).

Of course, the devil is in the details.

How do you know if a team member is trying their hardest? Is this person playing dumb and coasting through the day or truly confused by certain aspects of their role on your team?

2) Identify and Address Ability Issues in Poorly Performing Employees

Typically, ability issues begin with hiring/recruiting.

  • Was this person ready for this promotion/hire?
  • Did they have the right amount of skill/experience for their new position when you brought them on board?
  • Are they obviously engaged with their work?
  • Do they make a genuine effort but make few (if any) improvements?

Company resources can help struggling employees in certain cases, but not all.

For example, if an employee did good work in another position but has trouble on your team, find out what’s missing.

  • Did they have logistical, IT, or communication support in their previous role?
  • Can you easily give them the help they need – and will it make a difference?

You can address ability deficiencies in your team members by supplying them with requested resources.

Confirm the need for extra support by closely following up on this issue; people may claim they need material support when they actually don’t know how to do their jobs.

If support doesn’t do the trick, you can either train the person to their role or change their role. In fact, a combination of these efforts can help.

Learn which parts of an employee’s job cause them trouble and which the can do easily.

Is it possible to refocus this person on their strengths while training them to shore up their weaknesses?

If this doesn’t solve your employee’s issues, consider transferring them into a less-demanding role or sending them off to find work at another firm.

3) Diagnose Motivation Problems in Your Team Members

The flip side of ability is motivation.

Consider an employee with great skills and experience in their role who turns in late, sloppy, or uninspired work.

You know this person has what it takes to succeed, but they just don’t want to put in an effort. In cases like this, examine the motivation structures you’ve put in place.

  • Is this person bored?
  • Would they benefit from a greater challenge?
  • Could you get them to invest emotionally in a project by offering them a small leadership opportunity?

Although the intrinsic motivations mentioned above can often inspire people to engage with their work, we do show up to the office primarily for extrinsic motivations.

If someone seems unusually unmotivated, do your homework.

  • Were they recently passed over for a promotion?
  • Did your company change their benefits plan?

In most cases, it’s cheaper to see what you can offer a disgruntled employee to get them back on board than going through the HR nightmare of firing, recruiting, hiring, and training.

Though you sometimes will need to let people go, make every reasonable effort to avoid this outcome.

Many employees enjoy regular feedback on their work. Set clear and tangible goals with troubled employees, support the ability part of the equation, and provide a fair evaluation.

Paying attention to the effort people make can help them feel valued and inspire buy-in. Provide appropriate rewards, however.

Extroverted employees may shine when given attention and praise; however, introverted people may feel the best reward is the freedom to work independently.

4) Define Both Excellent and Poor Performance for Your Team Members

As a manager/team leader, you need to set appropriate goals and standards so everyone knows where they stand.

The days of guessing what the boss wants and waiting for a yearly employee performance evaluation to find out the score are long gone. Millennial employees (and most everyone else, too) expect clear instructions, fair targets, and regular feedback.

People will likely perform better if you provide a simple and consistent definition.

Poor performance means many things in many industries; take care to specify your minimum acceptable standards – especially for new hires and transfers.

People often like to know how much work it takes just to get by at a new job; as they adjust and get comfortable in their position, you can increase their targets and help them focus on stretch goals.

More than anything, remember to communicate frequently with employees in a genuine fashion.

Use 1-on-1 meetings to provide positive (not just negative) feedback and create a culture of trust and openness.

Also, take extra care to check in often with new employees and recent transfers.

5) Learn How to Manage Underperformance

Imagine you work for a company that sells conversion vans. You welcome a former salesperson from the dealership onto your customer support team.

Naturally, you assume their excellent people skills will make this an easy transition.

However, this person has trouble acclimatizing to their new position; when you examine their first week’s customer feedback, you see some very dicey survey results. When you alert this person to their low customer satisfaction percentage, they seem nonplussed.

Think a moment before threatening to revoke this employee’s position if they don’t shape up.

Though sales and support both involve customer communication, you may be asking this person to adopt a completely new paradigm.

Salespeople must endure many neutral (and even negative) interactions with potential customers before making each sale. In their old position, your new employee might have considered a 20% close rate an excellent sales week.

6)  Talk with Employees about Their Poor Performance

Improving employees’ performance can cost far less than hiring/training new personnel.

Sure, this person is having trouble in their new position; but, they know your product catalog front to back!

Talk with your troubled new team member (in private, of course!).

  • Does your salesperson-turned-support-person understand your department strives for customer satisfaction numbers of 90% or higher?
  • Can they shed their “plow through enough contacts, and we’ll make a sale” mindset?
  • Can you help them adopt appropriate speech patterns, approaches, and attitudes for serving existing customers?

7) Redefine Employee Performance Evaluations

Employee performance management often takes the form of performance evaluations.

You can conduct traditional annual performance management reviews or provide more frequent feedback. Consider providing monthly/quarterly feedback or making employee feedback a part of your project review cycle.

Some companies today give instant feedback and offer small weekly financial rewards. These instant, tangible reinforcements can make a huge difference in employee motivation and morale.

Even a small amount of money can show a company places a financial value on extra effort and dedication.

For example, I worked in a restaurant kitchen one college summer. One day, a manager pulled me aside, handed me a couple of hours of pay (in cash), and thanked me for working hard every shift without complaining.

This one-time bonus made a small financial difference and a major emotional difference in my work attitude. I made a point to keep up the behaviours that had impressed my supervisor – and worked even harder than before.

No matter which performance management system you choose (traditional or new-fashioned), you’ll need to provide some kind of employee performance evaluations. (Yes, the old way of conducting performance reviews does work best in many cases.)

Whether you provide feedback on an instant or annual basis, keep track of these interactions.

Not only do you need this information when considering promotions/transfers/terminations – you must also make sure to distribute praise and bonuses with complete fairness.

If you’re an extrovert, make sure to reward introverts (and vice-versa). Today’s more-engaged performance management process means team leaders need to invest a little more time in bookkeeping and time-logging.

Remember, Toggl’s time-tracking and report-generation tools take the work out of these extra managerial efforts.

8) Know When to Fire a Problem Employee

Sometimes, performance issues in the workplace don’t improve over time. If you’ve exhausted your options—and your patience—it may be time to call it quits.

Ultimately, poor work performance goes against the core reason you hire people – to get results.

Before putting an employee on the probation/termination track, make sure you’ve done the following:

  • Discuss the issue directly with the person
  • Ask the employee what they think is the root cause of their issue
  • Provide resources for ongoing skill development
  • (Re-)evaluate your team’s motivation structure
  • Reward and recognize employee efforts and results
  • Make sure you’re rewarding the behaviors you actually want to reinforce
  • Hold goal setting meetings with your team

If you must let someone go, take care to exhibit as much fairness as possible.

Back up your assertions with data and examples and stay positive. Encourage people to know their strengths and passions – and find work that aligns with their core values.

By framing a termination as a difference between individual and corporate missions, you avoid bringing personal judgments into the equation.

Firing is never easy, but you can head off PR and legal issues by taking the high ground in these vitally important conversations.

Of course, have an HR person sit in on termination sessions to protect the interests of both your company and your soon-to-be-ex-employee.

9) Use the Right Performance Management Tools

Luckily, most employers consider firing an expensive, high-stress, and uncomfortable last resort.

  • So, how can employees improve their performance and stay in the game?
  • What can you do to facilitate growth – not only in your poorly performing employees but in all your team members?

If you’re wondering how to manage an underperforming employee, remember you have a host of potent tools at your disposal:

  • Revise your employee review forms and experiment with both narrative and descriptive scale formats. Make these vital documents as clear, comprehensive, and descriptive as possible.
  • If you want to encourage better communication, creativity, and teamwork in your team members, consider playing well-targeted team-building games with your employees.
  • Ask the right employee review questions. If you choose to conduct traditional employee review sessions, engage people on an emotional/social level. Do everything you can to create an open-work environment, not a “principal’s office” vibe.
  • Create an action plan for underperforming employees. Work with your troubled team member to design a PIP (Performance Improvement Plan) that presents the problem, your solutions, and rewards/consequences in specific, direct language.
  • Use Toggl’s free and premium time-tracking software to quickly identify productivity sinkholes. With the right data on your side, you can help employees improve and reduce the need for probations and terminations!

The Bottom Line

In one sense, performance management is the very definition of a manager. It isn’t just a challenge for your employees to survive and thrive in the workplace.

You share in the successes and failures of all your people; in a way, you’re connected to each and every employee. Show your value as a manager by empowering people and setting appropriate boundaries and standards.

It’s time to create a work environment that encourages and rewards dedication, extra effort, and consistency!

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