Dealing with Underperformance

Is underperformance all the fault of the employee? In our experience, well led and well managed companies tend to have fewer underperformers. What often causes widespread underperformance is the prevailing culture and historical management style of the organisation.

So exploring the causes of underperformance is just as important as dealing with any individual who is underperforming.

Are we setting employees up to fail?

Contributory causes can come from managers or leaders in the form of:

  • Lack of clear objectives and priorities
  • Objectives and priorities not reviewed by managers
  • Poor performance becomes an acceptable norm
  • Failure to deal with the causes of previous failings (failure demand)
  • A global lack of all-round feedback to see ‘how we all really are doing’
  • Someone in the organisation is trying to achieve too much, too quickly
  • Lack of appraisal and development which contributes to lower morale
  • Conflicting policies and processes or processes that inhibit performance
  • Performance management policies too accommodating for those who choose not to do the job they are being paid to do

Common faults when dealing with underperformance

  • Some managers make things worse by being either too hard and or getting emotional, so that the issue gets mixed in with attack and defend behaviours.
  • Equally, being too soft, accommodating or avoiding the issue effectively endorses the underperformance and will not get to a resolution.
  • Talking around the issue, being vague, trying not to offend or going through a long list of faults does not help the employee get to realise what exactly they need to do.
  • ‘Having a word’ but not keeping a record of the discussion and then expecting HR to sort the issue for them subsequently.

Is this a cultural issue?

If you are new to the role, what are the cultural norms regarding performance and what has been ‘acceptable’ in the past? Dealing with wider underperformance will generally require wider commitment. Don’t be put off dealing with your area of responsibility though.

Questions to consider before tackling underperformance?

  • Why is the performance an issue?
  • When was this employees last 1-2-1 or performance review
  • When did you last engage meaningfully with the employee?
  • Whose performance, behaviour or processes are really causing the underperformance?
  • Is it worth pursuing?
  • Are expectations clear?
  • Are resources adequate?
  • Has feedback been provided?
  • Is desired performance punishing in some way?
  • Is the undesirable performance rewarding?
  • Are there any consequences at all?

Why people underperform – Three key questions

We may assume the reasons why people underperform but it is much better work with the person in a not confrontational manner asking three questions in this order:

1 What is their understanding?

This question opens up discussions around expectations and clarity, priorities and timelines, checking their understanding of the situation and who or what might suffer if things do not get done.

2 What might be stopping them?

Here we check what might be preventing an employee from doing what is required and is mostly focused on practical issues like resources, time, ability, situations and any other blockage which might be getting in the way. People often use ‘can’t’ type language when they really mean they are not confident or are too anxious about what they are being asked to do.

3 What other reason do they have for not performing as expected?

We now know that they fully understand what is needed and why. We have respectfully checked to deal with potential barriers and cleared these, so the last question is about willingness.

They may have a valid reason for not doing something and any reason needs exploring. If the reason is valid i.e. the system is changing next week therefore routine maintenance would be pointless, then we may need to change our mind.

If however, someone is unwilling to do what they are paid to do without a good reason then the issue may then become one of disciplinary action or other intervention.


The role of manager is to set expectations and check that they are clear, provide useful, timely and descriptive feedback and provide any resource or support for the employee to improve their performance.

It takes a combination of courage and consideration to manage people through performance issues and at all times, the manager should refer to their organisational

policies, seeking support and guidance to ensure that these are adhered to.

Well prepared and well run personal development reviews and follow up 1-2-1 sessions will allow the interactions that help to eliminate underperformance issues whilst developing the motivation and ability of the employee.

Next Steps

If you would like to explore how we can develop how your people deal with underperformance, please contact us today on 01252 737526  or

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