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Managing underperforming staff is a challenge that every organization must confront sooner or later.

Every organization, no matter how well-established or high-performing, is bound to encounter underperforming staff members at some point. As a manager or leader, it's your responsibility to address and manage underperformance effectively.

This blog will provide you with a comprehensive guide on how to manage underperforming staff members in a way that promotes growth, motivates your team, and ensures that your organization continues to thrive.

What is underperformance?

Underperformance refers to a situation in which an employee or team consistently fails to meet the established standards, expectations, or goals set for their role or tasks within an organization.

It is a state in which an individual's performance falls below what is considered acceptable or satisfactory for their position.

What causes staff to underperform?

Employee underperformance can be attributed to a variety of factors, both internal and external, that can affect an individual's ability to meet job expectations.

Identifying the specific cause of underperformance is crucial for implementing effective strategies to address the issue.

Here are some common causes of employee underperformance:

1. Lack of clarity in expectations

When employees are unsure about their roles, responsibilities, or performance expectations, they may struggle to meet them. Clear communication of job descriptions, goals, and performance standards is essential.

2. Inadequate skills or training

Employees may underperform if they lack the necessary skills or training to perform their tasks effectively. Providing ongoing training and development opportunities can help bridge these gaps.

3. Health or personal issues

Personal problems, physical or mental health issues, or external life stressors can impact an employee's ability to perform at their best. These factors may require understanding, flexibility, and support from the organization.

4. Workplace stress

High levels of stress, excessive workload, unrealistic deadlines, or a toxic work environment can contribute to underperformance. A stressful workplace can lead to burnout and decreased productivity.

4. Lack of motivation

Employees who do not feel motivated or engaged in their work are more likely to underperform. Factors such as a lack of recognition, career growth opportunities, or job satisfaction can diminish motivation.

5. Poor management

Ineffective or unsupportive management can lead to underperformance. A manager's leadership style, communication, and ability to provide feedback all play a role in employee performance.

6. Personal conflicts

Conflicts with colleagues or supervisors can create a hostile work environment that hinders performance. Addressing interpersonal issues and promoting a positive workplace culture is essential.

7. Inadequate resources

Employees may struggle to perform if they lack the necessary tools, equipment, or resources to complete their tasks efficiently.

8. Complacency

Long-term employees who have become complacent in their roles may underperform due to a lack of motivation to excel or adapt to changing circumstances.

9. Lack of feedback

Without regular feedback and opportunities for improvement, employees may not be aware of their underperformance or how to address it.

10. Personal disinterest

An employee may underperform if they have lost interest in their role or feel that their job does not align with their career aspirations.

11. External factors

Economic downturns, industry changes, or external market forces can lead to underperformance, as employees may feel uncertain about the stability of their jobs.

Addressing underperformance effectively involves identifying the root cause(s) and implementing targeted strategies to address those issues.

A combination of clear communication, ongoing support, training, and performance management can help employees overcome these challenges and improve their performance.

How to manage underperforming staff: 15 strategies

Here are 12 ways of managing underperforming staff and motivate them to go the extra mile.

1. Identify the underperformance

Before you can address underperformance, you must recognize it. Keep an eye out for signs such as missed deadlines, decreased productivity, a decline in the quality of work, frequent mistakes, or a negative attitude.

Engage in regular communication with your team to stay informed about their challenges and concerns.

2. Understand the root causes

Once you identify underperforming employees, take the time to understand the root causes of their underperformance.

It could be due to various factors, such as personal issues, lack of skills or training, poor management, or an unhealthy work environment. Conduct one-on-one meetings to discuss their concerns and gather insights.

3. Open and constructive communication

Communication is the key to addressing underperformance. Approach the issue with empathy and a willingness to listen.

Create a safe and non-confrontational environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their concerns and struggles. Ask open-ended questions and actively listen to their responses.

4. Set clear expectations

Underperforming employees may not fully understand their roles and responsibilities or the standards they should meet. Ensure that expectations are clearly defined, communicated, and documented.

This includes job descriptions, performance goals, and key performance indicators (kpis). Regularly review these expectations and provide feedback.

5. Provide training and development

If underperformance is due to a lack of skills or knowledge, invest in training and development programs.

Tailor these programs to address specific skill gaps and help employees improve their performance. This investment not only benefits the individual but also enhances the overall capabilities of your team.

6. Offer constructive feedback

Feedback should be specific, timely, and constructive. Focus on the behavior or performance, not the individual.

Use the "Sandwich" approach, where you start with positive feedback, provide constructive criticism, and end with positive reinforcement. Encourage a growth mindset by emphasizing the potential for improvement.

7. Implement performance improvement plans (PIPs)

In cases of persistent underperformance, consider implementing a performance improvement plan (PIP).

A pip outlines specific goals, timelines, and expectations for the employee to meet. It also includes regular check-ins to track progress. Be sure to involve the employee in creating the plan, so they feel a sense of ownership.

Effective performance management systems can help mitigate underperformance. According to a 2021 survey by Gartner, 54% of HR leaders reported that they had changed their performance management processes to focus more on ongoing feedback and development.

8. Monitor and provide support

Once a pip or other improvement plan is in place, regularly monitor the employee's progress. Provide ongoing support, resources, and coaching to help them succeed. Address any roadblocks or obstacles that arise and adjust the plan as needed.

9. Recognize and reward improvement

When an underperforming employee shows signs of improvement, acknowledge and celebrate their progress. Recognition and rewards can motivate employees to continue working towards their goals and boost their morale.

10. Consider alternative solutions

Despite your best efforts, some employees may not respond to interventions. In such cases, you may need to consider alternative solutions, such as reassignment, additional training, or, as a last resort, termination.

Make these decisions carefully, with the best interests of both the employee and the organization in mind.

11. Employee engagement and involvement

Encourage underperforming employees to actively participate in decisions related to their work and goals.

When they have a say in their work processes and feel involved in decision-making, they are more likely to be motivated and committed to improving their performance.

12. Mentorship and peer support

Pair underperforming employees with mentors or colleagues who excel in their roles. This mentorship can provide valuable guidance, support, and a positive role model for the struggling employee. Peer support and collaboration can also boost morale and help address performance issues.

13. Performance reviews and feedback loops

Implement regular performance reviews, not just for underperforming employees but for all team members.

These reviews should be opportunities for constructive feedback, goal setting, and discussing career development. Establish an ongoing feedback loop to ensure continuous improvement.

14. Flexibility and accommodations

Recognize that personal circumstances or health issues can impact performance. Offer flexibility and accommodations when appropriate.

This could include adjusting work hours, providing remote work options, or offering access to employee assistance programs (EAPs) for personal challenges.

15. Leadership development

Sometimes underperformance may be linked to ineffective leadership or management practices.

Invest in leadership development training for managers to ensure they have the skills to support and motivate their teams. A strong leadership team can make a significant difference in overall staff performance.

How do companies like IBM manage underperforming employees?

Companies like IBM typically have established processes in place to manage underperforming employees. Here's an overview of how IBM manages underperforming employees:

1. Performance feedback and assessment

IBM conducts regular performance reviews, often on an annual basis, where managers provide feedback on employees' performance against predefined goals and expectations.

During these reviews, underperforming employees are identified based on their failure to meet performance standards.

2. Clear performance expectations

IBM sets clear and measurable performance expectations for employees. These expectations are communicated during goal-setting sessions and performance discussions.

Employees are aware of the standards they are expected to meet and the specific metrics by which their performance will be evaluated.

3. Performance improvement plans (PIPs)

When an employee's performance falls below expectations, IBM may implement a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP).

A PIP is a formal document that outlines performance issues, specific improvement goals, a timeline for improvement, and consequences if improvement does not occur.

4. Training and development

IBM offers training and development opportunities to help underperforming employees acquire the skills and knowledge needed to improve their performance.

This can include access to online courses, workshops, or one-on-one coaching.

5. Regular feedback

Managers at IBM provide regular and constructive feedback to underperforming employees. This feedback is not limited to annual reviews but is ongoing throughout the year.

Feedback discussions focus on identifying areas for improvement and providing guidance on how to enhance performance.

6. Progress monitoring

IBM closely monitors the progress of underperforming employees who are on PIPs. Regular check-ins with managers and HR are common to track improvement efforts.

7. Individual development plans (IDPs)

In some cases, IBM may work with the employee to create an Individual Development Plan (IDP) that outlines specific actions and resources to help improve performance.

8. Consideration of alternative roles

If an employee consistently struggles in their current role, IBM may explore the possibility of transitioning the employee to a different role or department that better aligns with their skills and strengths.

9. Termination as a last resort

In cases where an employee fails to make satisfactory progress despite support and interventions, IBM may resort to termination as a last option.

IBM, like many large organizations, places a strong emphasis on employee development and prefers to help employees succeed whenever possible. Termination is typically seen as a last resort after all other avenues for improvement have been exhausted.

The specific policies and procedures for managing underperforming employees may vary within different departments or divisions of the company.


Managing underperforming staff is a challenging but essential aspect of leadership. It requires empathy, effective communication, and a commitment to helping employees reach their full potential.

By following the strategies outlined in this blog, you can create a supportive and productive work environment that encourages growth and continuous improvement, benefiting both your team and your organization as a whole.

Remember that every employee has the potential to improve, and it's your role as a manager to help them unlock that potential.

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