6 tips to motivate underperforming employees

January 29, 2024

6 tips to motivate underperforming employees

If you've been in a management position for any length of time, there's a good chance you've worked with employees who appear unmotivated, may not be working up to their usual standards, or seem completely uninterested in work. Burnout and fatigue were rising trends among workers before the pandemic, and now it could be even more challenging to feel connected to your team and keep employees engaged.

Addressing underperforming employees can feel intimidating and complicated, but emotional well-being and mental health are vital to productivity, engagement, and employee retention. While no one expects bosses to become therapists, you can do several things to motivate and engage your team.

Understand underperforming employees

Don't assume you know why an employee is performing poorly, struggling, or simply checking out. Take time to understand any underlying issues or concerns from the employee's perspective. Maybe your team member's workload is overwhelming – or just the opposite, and they don't feel challenged.

Unclear expectations are a key culprit when it comes to underperforming employees. In many cases, the individual may not understand what the expectations are. This can lead you to believe they're not trying when they aren't even aware of a particular responsibility. If your onboarding and training programs aren't up to the required standard, employees may not have the information they need to do the task properly.

Identify the exact nature of the problem so you can address it as effectively as possible. Poor performance may manifest as:

  • Failure to meet deadlines or quotas
  • Completed work of insufficient quality
  • Poor morale and attitude

Ask others on the team for their opinion on the problem before you speak to the employee. Open yourself up to taking some of the responsibility and admit that you may not have a clear view of the situation. This can give you the insights you need to proceed productively.

Make time to talk

Don't address underperforming employees in a casual or unthoughtful way, such as when you're wrapping up a meeting or discussing a related topic. Schedule dedicated, one-on-one time with that person to discuss the issue. Put a mental health check-in on the agenda for regular one-on-ones.

Be ready for a two-way conversation and allow your team member to express their thoughts. The key here is listening. Refrain from interrupting, getting defensive, or becoming combative. Take a team approach to the issue, placing yourself alongside the employee. Say something such as, “How can we do better?”

Make space for your employees to share their views and take in what you hear. Rarely is poor performance entirely due to the employee. Management nearly always has some role in the situation, and you'll get further when you're ready to own up to your shortcomings.

Validate the employee's concerns

If an employee feels they're not in the right role or needs more resources and support to do their job well, try to fully see the situation from their point of view and let them know you're hearing them. Acknowledging an employee's struggles can make them feel more comfortable and motivated in their daily tasks, even if you can't immediately remedy the situation.

Denying your employee's perception of the issue will only exacerbate problems. This is especially true in cases where morale is high on your list of concerns. Often, the team member needs to feel heard, and their attitude will markedly improve when you make that happen.

"Acknowledging an employee's struggles can make them feel more comfortable and motivated in their daily tasks, even if you can't immediately remedy the situation."

Be specific about your concerns

Giving negative feedback is always challenging, but you must be clear and specific when addressing issues with underperforming employees. Don't simply mention a poor attitude, as this is vague and open to interpretation. Instead, mention particular instances, such as when the employee ended a sales call abruptly without answering all the customer's questions or walked out of a meeting before waiting to hear everyone's responses.

Pair each criticism with constructive feedback. Be prepared to explain exactly how the employee should have acted instead. Mention prior instances where the employee performed well or exceeded expectations. Refer back to any ambitions they've expressed and explain how adjusting their attitude or productivity can make those goals a reality.

Move forward together

As you discuss the next steps, outline clear objectives and detail the necessary actions to meet them. See if the employee needs additional training or resources to help them perform better. Giving the employee a chance to take ownership of the situation is empowering and provides extra motivation to improve.

Follow up and recognize growth

Once you've formulated a plan, create a schedule to check in regularly. Make sure to recognize or reward any improvements and changes. The employee may have started blocking time on their calendar to complete tasks and avoid hours of emails, or they've established consistent working hours to support mental health. Keep up with their progress, write a nice note, send a gift card, or acknowledge their positive engagement.

Prioritizing empathy, patience, and support will help combat problems with underperforming employees. Proactively addressing issues will help your team members stay engaged and maintain the proper motivation to do their work well. 

More tips for managing your employees

Proactively address employee wellness and implement a plan to keep your workers in top shape.

Reevaluate your employee incentives and offer enticing perks to keep your team engaged.

Design a performance improvement plan to detail how your employees can do better.

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