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A Manager’s Role in Turning Around Underperforming Team Members

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Having to tell an employee that their performance hasn’t been meeting expectations is always a difficult conversation. However, acknowledging the role you play in this person’s success (or otherwise) is crucial to setting the stage for a constructive discussion to take place.

It also means you’ll be able to manage their underperformance in a way that motivates them to try to excel in the future. Look carefully at your own actions and see how these might have contributed to your team member’s lacklustre performance.

Before meeting with your team member, ask yourself these questions and be prepared to invest some time into the process.

1) Have you been setting clear expectations?

Whether your employee is falling short on a specific project or with their everyday responsibilities, the root cause could be that they don’t know what you expect from them in terms of performance.

If it’s a project, did you give clear instructions at the start? Have regular catch-up meetings where you discuss their performance together. Ask them to describe their current project in their own words and to define their role in it. Get them to run through the project’s timings and critical events. Do they feel that things are going according to plan or can they see any problems on the horizon? Try to maintain a ‘no surprises’ approach to these conversations, show that you value honesty & transparency.

2) Have you explained the big picture?

Even if you believe you’ve thoroughly communicated expectations for deliverables and deadlines, your team member may be underperforming because they’re unable to connect the dots and understand how their work affects others and the company as a whole.

Describe the company vision to your team member and explain why it matters and how it affects them.

Look for ways to help team members connect their activities to the company’s mission. At the start of a project explain the benefits, costs and financial impact of it to the company.

Giving your team members a more holistic understanding of the business will provide higher levels of employee engagement.

3) Have you been managing underperformance quickly enough?

If you’ve noticed that an employee’s performance is slipping, would you take immediate action? It’s not uncommon for managers to wait until a staff member’s annual review, or a serious issue, like a client complaint to arise before they discuss performance issues in depth.

This is a big mistake: If you don’t deal with the underperformance of an employee quickly, you’re sending a message that their current performance is acceptable. It sets a bad precedent for both the individual staff member and the rest of your team.

Timely feedback and reinforcement of expectations make a huge difference in keeping an employee who is starting to lose direction from veering completely off course.

4) Have you been reasonable?

If a team member is not meeting expectations, they may have too much on their plate. Consider whether you’re inadvertently undermining their ability to meet deadlines and deliver quality work because you keep adding to their to-do list.

Go through their task list with them and check how much time they’ve been spending on each part of the project. Make sure they have their priorities right and re-allocate tasks to others if necessary.

Sometimes, an employee’s underperformance can be attributed to a boss who is either unavailable or seems unapproachable.

Make sure you create an office environment where your team members know they can have an open discussion with you and explore solutions to a problem.

5) Have you been providing enough training?

Does your team member have the necessary skills to do the job and execute the tasks? You should ensure that your team members were provided with an appropriate onboarding programme.

Ask your team members if they have the skills to succeed in the role and if they believe their training can be improved. Are there areas they would like to learn more about? Do they feel they have the appropriate knowledge and necessary skills for the job?

Discuss the best options to pursue together. In addition to internal or external training, there may be other team members who can help them to upskill or provide mentoring. 

6) Do you know what motivates each individual team member?

Your team member’s underperformance could be attributed to the professional at hand not feeling motivated. It’s hard to manage someone without understanding what motivates them as an individual.

You should regularly take time to get to know your team better. Ask them:

  • What are your long-term goals and aspirations?
  • Where do you see your career heading in the next 12 months?
  • What can I do to support you get there?

Having these insights will help you make sure every member of staff is assigned to the correct role and will let you stay one step ahead in keeping them sufficiently (and suitably) motivated

7) Have you considered external factors?

If a poor performance issue has suddenly arisen, there is a chance that it could be the result of external factors in the employee’s personal life.

It could be a temporary situation, such as a relationship bump, moving house, a new child or a family illness. Or it may be a bigger issue, like general health or mental wellbeing.

Try to find out if anything is amiss before you have any discussions. During the discussion:

  • Show empathy and compassion – ask if everything is alright, both inside and outside the workplace.
  • Listen first then ask how you can support them.
  • Know if you can offer time off if appropriate.
  • Check in regularly and make sure they’re OK.
  • If necessary, enlist the help of professionals such as EAP Services




About the Authors

Giles Pearson FCA was a PwC Partner for 18 years before jointly setting up Accountests.  

Steve Evans has a whole career dedicated to enabling employers to attract, recruit, develop and retain talented individuals and teams, with particular expertise in candidate testing and assessment before setting up Accountests.

Accountests deliver the world’s only online suite of annually updated and country-specific technical knowledge tests designed by accountants for accountants and bookkeepers. 

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