How to Motivate Your Underperforming Employees

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November 13, 2019Hiring

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Murphy's law tells us that “things will go wrong in any given situation if you give them a chance.” When it comes to talent, you can do everything in your power to choose great people -- and ensure they’re equipped to do the job when hired -- but there will be times when it doesn’t pan out.

Even the best employees experience drops in productivity, and it most often happens when they either don’t have a clear direction in their work, the right abilities or resources, or they don’t care about the work anymore.[^1]

Finding and hiring great talent is difficult and when someone doesn’t work out, it’s agonizing for business leaders.

So whether you commit to regular stand-ups, communicate feedback and track performance, it might seem like you can prevent it from happening, but despite your best efforts, it's just not the case.

It can be one of the toughest things for business leaders to confront.

At small companies, where everyone often thinks of themselves as a “family” -- the mere thought of letting one of their own go can be gut-wrenching.

Many leaders remain content to shuffle along with underperforming employees until drastic steps are needed, creating a hole in the business with no clear succession plan. [^2]

Assuming you've had the tough conversations with your employees about their performance and things aren't improving, here some ways to think about how to navigate the process of managing poor performers while they're still in the seat.

Make choices about what needs to get done on their plate

Distill down what the focus is for the underperforming employee while they are around. Have a conversation about their duties and narrow the scope of the role, pruning the responsibility of their efforts. This way you can help them be good at one or two things rather than mediocre at many.  

Backfill the role

Backfilling helps you cope with the uncertainties and help minimize or avoid disruptions to current workflows and processes. Depending on the size of your team, you can introduce or cross-train other employees so you will have someone that can either do the job right away or hold down the fort until you can find a replacement for an underperforming employee.

Prepare for the worst-case scenario

Involve yourself as much as possible with the underperforming employee, and get a good understanding of what the critical pieces are in the role. Once you have that understanding, come up with a three-month contingency plan and take inventory of what resources you have available now -- and what you need down the road -- if that person isn’t around. Even if the plan doesn't play out, it's better to be prepared than not at all.

Be covert about any sourcing

When you do need to source talent, consider partnering with an external talent firm for a wider access to talent and so applications aren't coming to your business. Be transparent about the current situation -- whether someone is still employed or on their way out -- and make sure the firm knows it can't identify your company in any advertising.

Tap into your own network to get referrals

Pour some rocket fuel on this process and proactively mine your own networks connections or introductions to A-player talent. One caveat, you might just want to turn to your trusted connections when disclosing any organizational gaps and when asking if they know someone who could be a fit down the road. Even without open spots, the best managers and talent professionals are always sourcing for top candidates.

In the end

Even the best employees will struggle at some point in their career. While keeping these people can be problematic for a business long term, it's the responsibility of leaders to know how to best handle situations with underperforming employees until their time with you ends.

Veronica Feldmeier avatarVeronica Feldmeier