6 tips for managing poor performance

Managing poor performance is rarely an easy task, and managers would often prefer to avoid having the difficult conversations needed to solve the issue. But putting it off only leads to more problems down the line, with potentially serious consequences for your business.

These six tips will help you to manage poor performance effectively, getting to the root cause of the problem and having useful conversations to find the best solution.

Employees who believe that management is concerned about them as a whole person – not just an employee – are more productive, more satisfied, more fulfilled. Satisfied employees mean satisfied customers, which leads to profitability.

Anne M. Mulcahy, former chairperson and CEO of Xerox Corporation

Managing poor performance is something most business leaders would rather avoid. It can be an unpleasant process, especially when the outcome means having to let a member of staff go.

As John Baldoni highlights in his article for the Harvard Business Review, The Three Cs of Dealing with Under Performers:

“It’s easiest to ignore them and in fact, that’s what usually happens. Again and again in large organisations, peak efficiency is undermined because companies retain people who are clearly not doing their jobs. One reason underperformers hang on is because their supervisors fear confrontation. Other times, the employee has a connection to an executive in high places. But ignoring the problem is not bliss; it’s stupidity, one that undermines the integrity of the organisation.”

Unfortunately, avoiding dealing with poor performance is only delaying the inevitable. Sooner or later, the problem will need to be addressed.

Some of the most common causes of poor performance include:

  • The employee fails to achieve their goals and objectives
  • The employee’s low attendance is affecting performance
  • The employee isn’t working well with their colleagues
  • The employee lacks the skills to meet expectations
  • The employee is experiencing burnout and is unable to focus on the tasks at hand
  • The employee lacks the resources to perform their role
  • The employee faces obstacles which prevent them from performing optimally

It’s not always obvious which of these factors is leading to an employee’s poor performance. The following six tips will help you to pinpoint the issue so a plan of action can be put together.

1. Understand the problem

Poor performance comes in a variety of forms. Employees can fail to meet expectations across a range of measures, from low attendance,  failure to meet their deadlines, and conflict with managers. 

Understanding what factors drive poor performance is crucial before action can be taken. Before a manager can attempt to address the problem, research is needed to clarify exactly what’s causing it. Each employee has their own set of problems which leads to poor performance. There’s no “one size fits all” solution managers can fall back on to solve the problem.

There are several steps managers can take to fully understand what is causing poor performance.

Review the employee’s performance history

Performance management software allows managers and team leaders to track employee performance over time. When dealing with poor performance, this information can prove to be invaluable. 

Has the employee’s performance been dropping over time? 

Did performance drop suddenly at a given moment? 

Is there a project or aspect of their role where performance is poorer than other areas?

Analysing this data will help managers to pinpoint what areas are negatively impacted, and when this happened.

Using 360 degree feedback 

Understanding the problem from a variety of perspectives makes sure factors are not overlooked. In some cases, it may be necessary to conduct 360-degree feedback to gain a birds’ eye view of what is driving poor performance. 

Use 360-degree feedback to gather feedback from:

  • Peers and colleagues
  • Direct reports 
  • Team leaders and managers
  • External clients
  • External suppliers

With performance management software, you can create survey question templates specifically for managing poor performance. These templates can be easily changed and reused for future cases of poor performance.

Coordinate with HR to identify absence and sickness patterns

Identifying a point in time when an employee’s performance began to drop is a great place to start understanding the problem. Liaising with the HR department to discuss absence and other related factors helps to place this in context. 

It may be that the employee is dealing with personal issues which their team leaders and colleagues are unaware of. If this is the case, it’s important that managers are aware of the situation.

Once these steps have been taken and the evidence has been collected, it’s time to sit down with the employee.


2. Assess the situation

Once a clearer understanding of the problem has been arrived at, a full assessment of the situation is possible. It’s now time to sit down with the employee and discuss how their poor performance can be addressed.

Discussing poor performance with an employee is a conversation that managers and HR professionals would prefer to avoid. It can be an unpleasant experience, especially for those who prefer to avoid confrontation. But if framed correctly, it can be a chance for learning, both for the employee and manager.

It’s also an opportunity for managers to reflect on their own performance. Often, their own leadership can be overlooked as a source of any problems, so these conversations present an opportunity for the employee to cast light on this aspect of their work.

The goals of such a conversation are to clarify the source of poor performance while identifying a corrective course of action. Follow these steps when preparing and conducting a meeting with the employee to discuss their performance.

  1. Schedule the meeting in a discreet and private location.
  2. Prioritise the meeting – don’t delay.
  3. Send the employee documentation in advance (and bring it to the meeting). 
  4. Get straight to the point.
  5. Avoid focusing on intent and asking “why”. 
  6. Be polite and respectful. 
  7. Provide clear examples which point to the source of poor performance.
  8. Steer the conversation towards solutions. 
  9. Listen to them closely. 
  10. Clarify expectations. 

3. Set achievable goals

Once both the manager and the employee are on the same page, it’s time to set goals. These goals should directly address the areas most affecting the poor performance in a practical and realistic way. 

An article from Gartner outlines three ways you can set effective performance goals. These are:

1. Help managers provide context for goal setting

What a goal is trying to achieve is directly related to the situation. We’ve explored this idea in the first step of this guide to managing poor performance.

2. Make goal setting collaborative

Setting goals with the employee gives them a sense of being fully invested in the outcome. It also helps make sure they are completely clear on those goals, avoiding confusion down the road.

3. Empower employees to update goals regularly

In order for goals to be successful, they need to be easily measured. Choosing the right metrics to measure progress is important to keep the employee on the right track. These need to be clearly explained and easily broken down into objectives and key results. These can then be updated in real-time with performance management software.

Using the SMART goal method

When setting these goals, consider using the SMART goal method. SMART goals are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound

This method helps employees to stay focused on their goals, understanding what is expected of them and when these goals should be met.

4. Create a plan of action

I never cease to be amazed at the power of the coaching process to draw out the skills or talent that was previously hidden within an individual, and which invariably finds a way to solve a problem previously thought unsolvable.

John Russell, Harley-Davidson managing director

The method chosen for managing poor performance will depend entirely on its root causes. An employee whose work is slipping due to illness will need different measures to one who is struggling with their workload.

Strategies to consider as part of an action plan include:

Altering their responsibilities

Poor performance can often be the result of stress, overwork, and a lack of experience. If this is the case, altering their responsibilities and reducing their workload may be necessary. It may even be the case that they are better suited working in a different team or department. If their skills are better suited elsewhere, consider moving them into a different role.

Creating a Performance Improvement Plan

A Performance Improvement Plan is an effective method for setting a plan of action in stone. It can be used to outline the appropriate training, expected deadlines, and the timeframe for improvement. The goals outlined within a Performance Development Plan can be tracked through performance management software and monitored by a manager in real-time.

Setting them up with coaching and mentoring

A great way to reduce poor performance in the future is to coach the employee to update their skill set. This can be achieved by assigning a more experienced employee to offer the relevant coaching or committing them to a course or training program.

5. Implement the plan

Once the plan has been decided on, it’s time to put it into action. Follow these steps to make sure the plan stays on track and can be easily altered as and when things change.

Track progress using performance management tools

Performance management tools can be used to track a broad range of goals. These can be objectives and key results or key performance indicators, allowing for additional flexibility. 

Goals relating to employee performance issues can be set separately from those relating to daily work or projects. This means their progress can be isolated, making it much easier to monitor over time.

Set up regular feedback sessions

Regular one2one sessions should be scheduled between the manager and employee once the plan has been started. While such feedback sessions should be held as a matter of course with all employees, it is especially important to do so when managing poor performance. 

These conversations will help keep the plan on track, with any problems arising being addressed before they become too much to handle.

6. Evaluate results and make necessary changes

Once the deadline for the action plan has been reached, it’s time to reflect on the results. Has the employee succeeded in their aims? If not, how much progress was made, if any? 

Data collected through performance management software relating to goals can be used to help make decisions about what course of action to take next. If improvements have been made, managers cantake corrective measures to the next stage. 

If negative patterns of behaviour persist, it may be time to either demote or sever ties with the employee. Ultimately, the decision made should be backed by reference to the data which contrasts expectations with the end results.