8 Steps for Dealing with An Underperforming Employee

Talking with team members about their performance challenges typically falls in the category of “least favorite” managerial tasks, along with things such as budgeting, attending all-day meetings, and completing performance reviews. It’s usually not something most leaders enjoy, but it’s a necessary and critical part of helping your team perform its best.

Why do most leaders shy away from confronting poor performance head-on? My experience has shown that it’s usually because they don’t know where to start. Because the process feels uncomfortable and managers don’t have a plan to follow, they either do a poor job at addressing underperformance or they just don’t do it all.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Managers can confidently and successfully deal with underperforming employees by following an eight-step plan. The first three steps involve what I call “looking in the mirror,” which is examining the leader’s role in the employee’s performance issue. The next five steps are “looking out the window,” which is exploring the employee’s role in the situation.

Looking in the mirror

Before having a conversation with the employee, the leader needs to look in the mirror and examine if they’ve done their part to help the employee succeed.

Step 1: Did I set clear goals? All good performance starts with clear goals.

That’s one of the key leadership principles Ken Blanchard and I discuss in our recent book, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust. Although most managers agree with the importance of setting goals, many do not take the time to clearly develop goals with their team members and write them down. How do leaders expect people to achieve their goals if they aren’t clear on what a good job looks like? And how can leaders accurately address poor performance if there isn’t a clear benchmark against which to measure?

Step 2: Did I accurately diagnose the employee’s development level?

People go through predictable stages of development when starting a new goal or task. Their development level on a task is a combination of competence (knowledge and skills) and commitment (confidence and motivation).

Most people start a new goal or task as an Enthusiastic Beginner because they have high commitment but low competence on doing the task. As they gain a bit of competence, they typically experience a dip in commitment because they realize the task is harder than they thought. We call people at that stage of development a Disillusioned Learner. As they build competence and commitment on the task, they move into the stage of being a Capable, but Cautious Performer. They know most of what to do regarding the task, but they still have some self-doubt that causes them to question themselves or seek the help of more experienced colleagues. Finally, when a person is fully competent and committed on a task, they have become a Self-Reliant Achiever.

Step 3: Did I use a leadership style that matched the employee’s development level?

In The Ken Blanchard Companies’ SLII® leadership development model, managers are taught to use different leadership styles that match the development level of their employees. Leaders flex their style by employing a combination of directive and supportive behaviors. For example, when an employee is an Enthusiastic Beginner, a leader needs to use a Directive style that is high on direction and low on support to teach the employee the basics of doing the task. Disillusioned Learner’s need a Coaching style that is high in both direction support to help them develop both their competence and commitment. Leaders use a Supporting style, high on support but low on direction, to draw out the Capable but Cautious Performer and help them step into their own power and knowledge. And of course, Self-Reliant Achievers can be given a Delegating style of leadership because they know what to do with minimal involvement from the leader.

Looking out the window

Leaders “look in the mirror” by examining themselves to make sure they’ve worked with the employee to set clear goals, accurately diagnosed the development level of the employee on each of those goals, and then used a matching leadership style to help the employee develop to peak performance. If leaders can answer in the affirmative to steps 1 to 3, then they can begin “looking out the window.”

Step 4: Is the employee unclear on goals and expectations?

It’s not uncommon for there to be confusion between leaders and employees on goals. Here’s an interesting way to test for goal alignment between a leader and team member. Both the leader and team member write down what they each believe to be the team member’s top 3-5 goals and then they compare notes. It’s amazing how often there is a notable discrepancy between the two lists.

If there isn’t alignment on the specific goal, the leader needs to reset or renegotiate goals with the employee, or the leader needs to give feedback on what and how the employee needs to perform differently.

Step 5: Have things changed to impact goal achievement?

Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight boxing champion, famously said “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Conditions in the employee’s environment may have changed since the goal was first established, and as a result, their performance is being negatively impacted.

If this is the case, the leader may need to work with the employee to renegotiate the goal. Additionally, the leader may need to work with the employee on a strategy to mitigate the environmental risks. The leader should also partner with the team member to facilitate problem solving. Sometimes obstacles cause employees to stall out in progressing on their goal and they just need their leader to provide good coaching that helps them solve their own problems.

Step 6: Is it a problem of competence/skill?

If leaders answer yes to this question, it means the employee is either an Enthusiastic Beginner or Disillusioned Learner on the goal/task. In that case, the leader should provide a more directive style of leadership that involves showing the employee how to do the task and setting up a step-by-step plan for learning that will help the employee become a Self-Reliant Achiever (fully competent and committed).

Step 7: Is it a lack of confidence?

If the employee has the competence to do the task but lacks confidence, that signifies they are a Capable, but Cautious Performer. The leader’s job at this point is to build the employee’s confidence. How is that done? The leader uses high supportive behavior like encouraging and reassuring the employee. The leader can also build the employee’s confidence by helping them reflect on past successes and highlight the progress the employee has already made on the goal/task.

Step 8: Is it a lack of motivation?

There are times when all of us experience the motivational doldrums. Whether it’s personal or work-related, our motivational outlooks can impact our work performance. Identifying and connecting the employee’s contributions to the bigger-picture outcomes of the organization can help improve their motivation.

Most People Want to Succeed

Most of the time, following the previously outlined steps will help an employee improve their performance. However, there will be occasions when leaders work through these eight steps and performance doesn’t improve. What to do then?

Leaders should challenge ‘won’t do” behavior and clearly outline the consequences of continued non-performance. But before resorting to that, consider that most people want to do a good job. Very few people wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “I can’t wait to be a total failure today!” Before “looking out the window” to address poor performance with an employee, leaders need to “look in the mirror” to see if they’ve done their part to set the employee up for success. After all, leadership is a partnership. It’s something you do with people, not to them.

8 Comments on “8 Steps for Dealing with An Underperforming Employee

  1. This is definitely a very difficult topic to address. Team members need a constant validation of their progress and work. I have learned that regularly giving feedback helps my team more than the annual reviews. We are able to address any issues quickly and efficiently. But, more importantly i can support and praise those doing a great job. Most people like to get that validation. Without it, some team members feel unappreciated and start to decrease in productivity.

    • Thanks, Kendreia. Engaging in frequent feedback/performance check-ins keeps the lines of communication open. The annual performance review then just becomes a recap of all the conversations you’ve been having and it makes it easier on everyone. It also ensures there are no surprises come performance review time!

      Take care,


  2. Step 1 is critical. Setting expectations lays the ground work for the employee to be successful. Once a leader accepts responsibility for the performance of everyone on their team, they’ll have the courage to deal with underperformance.

  3. This was a helpful post. I am currently preparing for a conversation with an employee and these tips are coming in handy as I prepare for my conversation. I like the apart about making sure the employee understands my expectations. I need to make sure that I am not assuming that they know my expectations I need to be very clear and have written confirmation. Thank you for the blog post.

    • Hi Kelly,

      I’m glad you found this helpful! Making sure the leader and team member share the same understanding and expectations is critically important…and one of the most common disconnects in this situation!

      Take care,


  4. Randy, I appreciate the breakdown of the tasks in terms of looking in the mirror and looking out the window. I was just faced with this dilemma today and I thought through the first two steps but did not think about the leadership style vs the employee’s development level. Thinking through my current scenario with an employee and the steps above, I have a bit more insight in how I want to approach my assessment of whether to spend more on training, switching leadership for the employee, determining if a new role may be better, or terminating the employee. Your steps help with more of an objective approach to determining the next steps.

    One thing that goes along with your step 4 that I have found very eye-opening for mapping out where my employees are and where they think they are going is a talent dashboard, very similar to the goal comparison you have in step 4. Getting a pulse for what an employee thinks their goals are, along with what they think their 3 main accomplishments were for the past year, and what their strengths and weaknesses are helps frame expectations going forward. Thanks again for helping me think through the process!

    • Hi Polly,

      I’m glad you found the article helpful! I applaud you for taking a thoughtful approach to this issue with your team members. A performance/talent dashboard is a great technique for managing the process.

      Take care,


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