How To Deal With An “Under Performing” Employee?

Performance measurement is subjective and its definition depends on the type of the task. In a market where the speed of deliveries matters the most, developing new shiny features fast can get the attention of the users. In such a market, the performance measurement units might mostly focus on the delivery speed. By contrast, the performance measurements for building a spacecraft that takes astronauts to International Space Station might focus more on the safety measures. Product delivery speed is always a concern, but in this example the life of the astronauts is far more valuable than building a spacecraft that is rushed to production.

No two person get exactly the same experience in life. For this reason, no two people can agree on the attributes of a perfect person.

You might ask, what this has to do with a person who is clearly under performing? Later in this post, we look at how goal settings, performance measurements and what employee values are all tied together. 

What is performance?

When we talk about someone’s performance, we naturally compare them with an imaginary “ideal person”. The perfect person is a collection of successful traits you learned throughout your journey in life. No two person have exactly the same experience in life. For this reason, no two people can agree on the attributes of a perfect person. This is why performance measurements are subjective. If a person is not performing well in a team, the same person can be doing the same thing and yet be the top performer in another team. This is what everyone needs to keep in mind, but specially leaders when they are dealing with an under performing individual. 

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the common steps you can take while dealing with an under performing team member: 

Does the employee understand the goals? 

It might come as a surprise to some, but having a good set of agreed goals is often overlooked in many teams. The definition of a good goal is beyond the scope of this post, but you can refer to tons of online resources. Let’s make a common misunderstanding clear: Goals are not Demands! The difference between a goal and demand is simply the agreement type. If you as a leader set a goal for your employee, you are simply demanding them to do a task, maybe in a certain way. A demand becomes a goal, when both parties agree on it. If you find yourself in a situation where your reports simply agree with your goals without truly understanding the reasoning behind them, you need to stop and make sure they see value in achieving those goals. Neglecting this step will hurt at later stage, almost all the time. 

Goals are not Demands! The difference between a goal and demand is simply the agreement type.

We both agreed on the goals, but after a little while, we are back at square one!

Once you make sure your report understands the goals and the reasoning behind them, only then you can take a step forward and talk about why you think he or she is not performing up to the agreed expectations. If you have some performance measurement units in place, this is a good time to have them ready. It is extremely important that your report gets your feedback frequently. Observe the employee for his or her reaction when you communicate the matter. If the news comes as a surprise to the report, this is often a sign of communication problem from both sides. Allow the other party to elaborate the situation. You need to listen. There can be various reasons and actions at play. To name few: 

Not having a clear understanding of the goals

Take a step back and revisit the goals. Try to focus on the reasoning behind each of them.

Lack of knowledge or skills

Look at your Skills Matrix and find a person who can help conducting a knowledge sharing session

Obstacles in other parts of the company

See what you, as a leader, can do in other parts of the company to help your team member.

Personal issues

All you can do is to offer your help within the professional limits

Outdated goals

Redefine the goals with the employee

As you can see, improving your team members performance often requires efforts from both the team member and the leader.

It does not seem to work 

It is a leader’s responsibility to deal with an “under performing” employee. When the day comes that you need to ask someone to leave, make sure you have done everything on your side as a leader. Sometimes we forget what we value the most. Remind your employee on the day you need to deliver the bad news that performance measurements are subjective and remind them to look back at what they value the most. Help them find what they value. 

Special thanks to Sheryl Basbas for helping me with proofreading this article.