How to Motivate an Underperforming Employee

CoffeePals Team
CoffeePals Team
April 12, 2024
How to Motivate an Underperforming Employee

In any organization, leaders often grapple with the challenge of underperforming employees. These individuals can significantly impact team morale and hinder organizational success, whether due to personal struggles, lack of engagement, or skill gaps.


7 out of 10 underperforming employees became solid performers after their organization decided to continue developing them for a year.

Rather than resorting to punitive measures or resignation, savvy leaders recognize each team member's untapped potential. In this guide, we’ll discuss practical strategies and techniques for inspiring, supporting, and empowering underperforming employees to foster a culture of growth, productivity, and mutual success.

1. Identify the root cause.

Underperformance is not always caused by behavioral issues or a lack of skills. It often stems from various underlying factors that require careful attention. Identifying the root cause of underperformance is essential for implementing targeted solutions and supporting employees in their journey toward improvement.

Common root causes for underperformance include:

  • Personal issues: Employees may face health issues, family problems, or financial stressors that can significantly impact their motivation, focus, and ability to meet expectations.
  • Lack of clarity: Unclear or constantly changing expectations, role ambiguity, or insufficient guidance can leave employees without a clear understanding of what is expected of them, making it more challenging for employees to perform to their full potential.
  • Skills or knowledge gaps: Sometimes, underperformance results from a lack of necessary skills, knowledge, or experience required to fulfill job responsibilities effectively. 
  • Workplace environment: Toxic work culture, interpersonal conflicts, micromanagement, or lack of support from colleagues or superiors can adversely affect employee morale, engagement, and performance.
  • Burnout and stress: Excessive workload, tight deadlines, or unrealistic expectations can lead to burnout and chronic stress, decreasing productivity and motivation. 
  • Lack of motivation: Employees may need more intrinsic motivation or a sense of purpose in their work due to boredom, disinterest, or feeling undervalued. 
  • Poor fit: Sometimes, underperformance may be attributed to a mismatch between the employee's skills and interests and the requirements of the role or organizational culture.

By carefully assessing the root cause of underperformance, leaders can tailor their approach to address specific challenges and provide the necessary support and resources to help employees overcome obstacles and thrive in their roles.

2. Recognize their efforts.

Traditionally, performers are recognized, while underperformers are not. This imbalance in recognition often exacerbates the underperformance issue, as it overlooks the efforts and progress made by those struggling to meet expectations.

However, shifting this paradigm to include recognition for underperforming employees can be transformative for both the individual and the organization. Here are some of the benefits of recognizing the efforts of underperforming employees:

  • Boosts morale: Acknowledgment and recognition validate the employee's efforts and contributions, which boosts their morale and sense of worth and leads to improved performance.
  • Reinforces positive behavior: When underperforming employees receive recognition for their efforts, it reinforces positive behavior and encourages them to continue striving for excellence. 
  • Builds confidence: Recognition builds the confidence of underperforming employees by affirming their abilities and potential, which can empower them to tackle challenges with renewed vigor and confidence.
  • Fosters trust and loyalty: Recognizing the efforts of underperforming employees demonstrates empathy, support, and a commitment to their growth and development, fostering a sense of trust and loyalty and strengthening the bond between the employee and the organization. 
  • Encourages continuous improvement: By acknowledging and celebrating the efforts of underperforming employees, leaders create an environment where employees are motivated to seek feedback, learn from their mistakes, and proactively identify opportunities for growth and development.
  • Promotes a positive culture: Recognition contributes to a positive work culture where employees feel appreciated, respected, and supported.

When recognition becomes a regular practice, it sets a positive tone within the organization, promoting collaboration, teamwork, and mutual support. It helps guide employees on areas for improvement and empowers them to continue growing and excelling in their roles.

To effectively leverage acknowledgment and recognition to help underperforming employees improve, leaders should ensure that recognition is timely, specific, and sincere.

3. Practice empathy, but be straightforward.

Balancing empathy and straightforwardness is essential when addressing underperforming employees. It allows for effective communication of expectations and support while maintaining accountability and fostering growth.

While empathy helps managers understand the root causes of underperformance and offer support, being straightforward ensures that employees understand the consequences of their actions and the importance of meeting performance expectations.

Here are some ways managers can balance empathy and straightforwardness when dealing with underperforming employees:

  • Start with empathy: Begin the conversation by acknowledging the employee's challenges and expressing your willingness to support them in overcoming these challenges.
  • Be specific and objective: When providing feedback on performance issues, focus on observable behaviors and outcomes rather than making assumptions or judgments.
  • Offer supportive resources: Provide employees with resources, training, or mentorship opportunities to help them improve their skills and overcome performance challenges. 
  • Set clear expectations: Communicate performance expectations and ensure understanding to avoid misunderstandings and provide a framework for measuring progress.
  • Follow up regularly: Schedule regular check-ins to monitor the employee's progress and provide ongoing feedback and support. Celebrate successes and progress while addressing ongoing challenges or areas needing improvement.

By balancing empathy and straightforwardness, managers can effectively support underperforming employees in achieving their full potential while maintaining accountability and driving organizational success.

underperforming employee

4. Guide, don’t dictate.

When dealing with underperforming employees, managers should guide but not dictate to foster autonomy, accountability, and personal growth. Micromanaging or dictating solutions can stifle creativity, initiative, and ownership of one's actions, ultimately hindering long-term improvement and development.

Here are some ways that managers can guide rather than dictate when working with underperforming employees:

  • Ask questions: Guide employees through self-assessment and problem-solving rather than providing all the answers.
  • Provide feedback and support: Offer constructive feedback and guidance on leveraging strengths to overcome challenges.
  • Offer resources and opportunities: Provide employees with resources, training, and opportunities for growth and development, including access to workshops, courses, mentorship programs, or stretch assignments that challenge them to expand their skills and knowledge.
  • Encourage collaboration: Foster an environment where employees can seek support and guidance from their peers and their manager. 
  • Provide autonomy: Give employees the freedom to take ownership of their work and decide how best to achieve their goals to build their confidence and foster a sense of ownership over their performance.

By guiding rather than dictating, managers can empower underperforming employees to take ownership of their performance, develop their skills, and achieve their full potential.

5. Discuss an improvement plan.

Discussing an improvement plan with underperforming employees ensures that both the manager and the employee are on the same page regarding what needs to be done to address underperformance. Outlining specific actions and timelines in the improvement plan also creates a sense of responsibility and ownership over the improvement process.

To discuss an improvement plan effectively with underperforming employees, managers can follow these steps:

  • Frame the conversation positively: Start the discussion by acknowledging the employee's strengths and contributions. Emphasize that the purpose of the meeting is to support their growth and development.
  • Provide specific feedback: Be specific and objective when discussing areas of underperformance. Use concrete examples to illustrate where improvement is needed and how it impacts the team or organization.
  • Collaboratively set goals: Work with the employee to set SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals for improvement. 
  • Develop an action plan: Collaborate on developing a detailed action plan outlining the steps, resources, and timelines needed to achieve the agreed-upon goals. Ensure the plan is realistic, actionable, and tailored to the employee's needs and circumstances.
  • Follow through and monitor progress: Follow through on commitments made during the discussion and consistently monitor the employee's progress toward goals. Provide ongoing feedback and support as needed to keep the employee motivated and on track.

By engaging in open, collaborative discussions about improvement plans, managers can empower underperforming employees to take ownership of their development and work toward achieving their full potential.

employee support

6. Tap into their interests.

Tapping into an underperforming employee's interests can significantly contribute to their development by increasing their motivation, engagement, and satisfaction. When employees can leverage their interests and passions in their roles, they are more likely to feel energized, fulfilled, and invested in their work, ultimately leading to improved performance and growth.

To tap into an underperforming employee's interests effectively, managers can consider the following strategies:

  • Conduct interest assessments: Conduct conversations or assessments to uncover the employee's interests, passions, and strengths. This could involve one-on-one discussions, interest inventories, or personality assessments to gain insights into what motivates and excites the employee.
  • Align tasks with interests: Once interests are identified, assign tasks, projects, or responsibilities that align with the employee's interests and strengths. Look for opportunities to incorporate elements of their interests into their daily work assignments whenever possible.
  • Provide learning and development opportunities: Offer opportunities for training, skill development, or professional growth that align with the employee's interests, such as attending workshops, conferences, or courses related to their field of interest or providing access to relevant resources and learning materials.
  • Encourage autonomy and exploration: Give employees the freedom to explore and pursue projects or initiatives that align with their interests. Encourage independence and creativity in problem-solving, allowing employees to take ownership of their work and explore new ideas and approaches.

By tapping into an underperforming employee's interests, managers can unlock their full potential, increase motivation and engagement, and foster a culture of continuous learning and development. This approach benefits the individual employee and contributes to the overall success and productivity of the team and organization.

7. Provide open communication channels.

Providing open communication channels helps create a supportive environment where issues can be addressed openly and constructively. Effective communication allows managers to understand the root causes of underperformance, provide timely feedback and support, and collaborate with employees to develop personalized strategies for improvement.

Here are a few strategies to help implement open communication channels:

  • Listen actively and empathetically: Practice active listening and empathy when engaging in conversations with underperforming employees. Pay attention to their perspectives, validate their feelings, and demonstrate understanding and support.
  • Ask open-ended questions: Encourage open dialogue by asking open-ended questions that prompt employees to share their thoughts and experiences. Avoid leading questions or assumptions and allow employees to express themselves freely.
  • Provide constructive feedback: Provide feedback constructively and respectfully, focusing on specific behaviors and outcomes rather than personal attributes. Praise strengths and progress while providing guidance on areas needing improvement.
  • Create a safe and supportive environment: Foster a culture of open communication where employees feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, concerns, and ideas without fear of judgment or reprisal. Encourage honesty, transparency, and mutual respect in all interactions.

When it comes to safe spaces in the workplace, a virtual coffee chat is the perfect venue to have open conversations. Virtual coffee chat platforms create a casual environment where employees can connect, share ideas, and discuss topics openly without the pressure of formal meetings or agendas. These informal gatherings foster camaraderie, collaboration, and a sense of belonging, promoting a culture of inclusivity and mutual support within the team.

CoffeePals is a virtual coffee chat platform that can help you accomplish this. Add CoffeePals to Microsoft Teams now and start pushing all your employees (underperforming or not) to reach their full potential.

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