Leadership feels like a piece of cake when your team is running like a well-oiled machine. Everybody knows what’s expected of them and is knocking their work out of the park with little direction or intervention from you.

Unfortunately, managers know all too well that it’s not always the reality. Leading people is tough, and you’re bound to run into situations where a certain employee isn’t pulling their weight. 

Not only does that mean that tasks are dropped and deadlines are missed, but it also destroys the morale of your entire team. Understandably, your high-performers quickly become frustrated when they feel like they’re left to pick up the slack. 

So…what happens now? Here’s how you can effectively deal with an underperforming employee—while hopefully keeping the tension, resentment, and muttered passive-aggressive remarks to a minimum.

Step #1: Make empathy your default

That employee’s lack of commitment isn’t a secret. You and your team members have noticed them dropping balls and skating by with the bare minimum for a while now.

Let’s just say it: It’s irritating, and their perceived social loafing is enough to make you want to charge right in with a, “It’s time to buck up and do your job!” sort of pep talk.

That’s natural, but pump the brakes for a minute. While you certainly aren’t here to coddle employees, it’s worth recognizing that most people are dealing with a lot outside of work—especially in recent years. Consider a few of these facts:

  • One survey found that 55%of workers say a mental health issue has affected them since the pandemic began.
  • 41% of workers admit they feel burnt out, drained, or exhausted from their work.
  • Many workers found themselves dealing with expanded job duties and longer work days when they shifted to remote work.

Plus, many team members have spent the better part of two years juggling caregiving responsibilities, dealing with kids who are constantly in and out of daycare or school environments, and experiencing constant stress and worry about the health and safety of their loved ones.

It’s a lot. So, now is not the time to handle performance conversations with a wagging finger and a firm tone. Instead, skip the accusations and start with genuine compassion and concern first. Here’s what that might look like:

Instead of: “This is the second deadline you’ve missed this month. One more and we’re going to need to have a serious conversation about your future here.”
✅ Try this: “I’ve noticed that you’ve been struggling to meet your deadlines and wanted to check in with you. How are you doing?”

Instead of: “Your latest month-end report is riddled with errors. I need you to fix those ASAP and do better moving forward.”

✅ Try this: “I’ve always been impressed with your month-end reports, but lately it seems like you’re rushed and the quality is suffering. Let’s talk about what’s going on—how can I help you get these back on track?”

See the difference? Discussing performance can be nerve-wracking for both you and your employee, so coming alongside them and addressing it as a genuine check-in rather than an evaluation with reprimands will show them that you’re in their corner and want them to succeed.

Step #2: Tailor action steps to their specific circumstances

There’s another benefit to starting the performance conversation with authentic concern and questions rather than finger-pointing: It gives you a chance to understand the root cause of an employee’s underperformance, which is crucial when it comes to effectively managing it.

After all, how you motivate an employee who’s dealing with burnout will be different from how you inspire one who’s unclear on their expectations.

With that in mind, let’s cover a few common scenarios that lead to underperformance—along with some strategies you can use to (hopefully) help them course correct.

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If the employee doesn’t understand their expectations…

In your conversation with your employee it became clear that the reason they aren’t meeting standards is because they don’t actually understand what your standards are.

Maybe they’re still relatively new in their role and getting up to speed on their responsibilities. Or, perhaps the expectations you assumed were obvious and unmistakable are getting lost in translation. 

Here’s how you can empower that employee with the clarity they need to up-level their performance: 

  • Sit down and talk through their responsibilities and expectations together, providing ample opportunity for them to ask questions and provide feedback.
  • Assign OKRs to those responsibilities so they understand not only what they need to be doing, but also what success looks like.
  • Schedule more frequent check-ins between the two of you to discuss their progress and workload.
  • Provide additional training, resources, or job shadowing for tasks they don’t feel entirely confident handling. 

You don’t want confusion and ambiguity to be what holds an employee back from doing their best work, and taking the time to spell things out this way might be the boost they need to reach their peak performance.

If the employee doesn’t understand their expectations…

Even if your employee tried to sugarcoat it, this message still came through: Their performance is suffering because every single day feels like a slog through their to-do list. They feel completely detached and disinterested in their work. 

In this case, motivation isn’t going to come from clear responsibilities—they already know what they should be doing. Instead, your goal is to help them reignite some excitement for their work. Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Have a candid conversation about their individual career goals and draw the parallels for how their current responsibilities will help them get there.
  • Connect their individual responsibilities to the larger work of your team or even your entire organization, so they can see how they contribute to the bigger picture.
  • Identify some new tasks or challenges that they’re interested in and hash out a plan for having them take those on.
  • See if there are any mundane or repetitive tasks that could be automated, outsourced, or even eliminated entirely. 

Of course, employees will still need to handle some duties that don’t exactly set their hearts on fire—that’s the nature of work. However, these tips can help them rediscover some fervor for what they do, and you’ll likely see their performance improve as a result.

If the employee is dealing with extreme stress and burnout…

When you approached the performance conversation with your employee, you could see them sigh a visible breath of relief. This was their opportunity to tell you that they’re completely overwhelmed. Drained. Exhausted. Stressed. Spread thin. 

They know that they haven’t been pulling their weight, but they feel stuck in a cycle of burnout that makes it impossible for them to right the ship. 

First, recognize that this is a tough admission for any employee to make. Talking about mental health or our own perceived shortcomings puts us in a vulnerable position. Plus, many managers don’t feel adequately equipped to handle those admissions, with only 19% of leaders rating their skills in reducing employee burnout as advanced or expert. 

How do you respond to this admission with the right amount of support and encouragement? Here are a few ideas:

  • Go through their current tasks and responsibilities and see how you can help them re-prioritize or even remove items.
  • Schedule regular check-ins specifically for connecting with them about their workload and wellbeing.
  • Connect them with the mental health support and resources that you or your company currently offers.
  • Ask about their scheduling needs and how you can support them in creating a schedule that works best for them.
  • Discuss mental health leave options, if it’s clear that the employee needs some extended time away from work. 

There’s no easy answer or quick fix for burnout. But, failing to help the employee address the issue will breed disengagement—and eventually turnover. In fact, 70% of employees say they’d leave their company for one with better resources to reduce burnout.

Step #3: Keep a close eye on what happens next

Once you’ve addressed the performance issues and provided adequate support and direction to that employee, your job isn’t done. Now you need to monitor their progress. 

Are you seeing noticeable improvements in their performance? Or are things staying the same—or perhaps even getting worse?

As you assess the situation over the coming weeks or months, you can take steps to continue pushing them in the right direction, such as offering positive feedback for a job well done or continuing to clarify responsibilities. 

However, it’s also worth recognizing that some employees simply won’t make the necessary improvements. Maybe they aren’t the right fit for your team or company culture or perhaps they’re completely disengaged from their job and are actively hunting for a new one. 

If the employee continues to fall short of expectations (despite your best efforts to help them), you’ll need to decide when it’s time to make the tough decisions and put them on a formal performance improvement plan or even let them go.

Those aren’t easy choices to make or fun discussions to have, but they’re crucial for ensuring that you don’t let an underperforming employee sabotage the morale and motivation of your team as a whole. Just make sure you’re documenting everything—your conversations with the employee, steps you’ve taken, etc.—so you have that record if you need it.

Help your employees (and your entire team) achieve peak performance

Here’s the truth: Dealing with an underperforming employee can be challenging for everyone involved. 

The employee feels like they’re being constantly watched and evaluated, you feel like you’ve had no choice but to transform into a micromanager, and the rest of your team feels doubtful that things will turn around. 

It’s a tough situation, but approaching it with empathy and then taking the appropriate action steps show your entire team that you’re eager to help every single one of them be successful. 

Three steps to manage, motivate, and support an underperforming employee