As a leader, you may have an employee who just isn’t performing their work to the level or degree expected of them. Maybe it’s been that way for a while, or maybe it’s recent. Others notice it too, and now you’ve got a morale concern to address on top of a Friday deadline that arrived with a half-baked deliverable.
What can you do in this situation? How do you deal with an employee who isn’t working to their full potential? You first may consider that voice in the back of your head reminding you of all those buzzwords you’ve been seeing everywhere — even if you aren't sure what to think about them. Quiet quitting. Burnout. The Great Resignation. There has been a seismic shift in the expected approach to these long-felt employee sentiments, and employers are now understanding how they can be a part of the solution without losing talent they’ve invested in.
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If you're pretty certain the workload you are expecting from this employee is reasonable and achievable, there are several things to consider. Being proactive is best here, so when you first notice an employee is lacking the motivation needed to produce high quality work, consider the following tactics.
Reflect and Ask Questions
In general, a good leader will stay on top of team performance by meeting with all their employees on a regular basis. They take the time to listen and provide space to identify challenges early on. When you identify an underperformer, first take stock: how long has this been going on? Is this a noticeable drop off or a recognized pattern? This will help frame your approach.
Next, directly ask them what they are struggling with and really listen. Try to avoid quick judgements or assumptions about what’s going on with them as that can often be counterproductive to the goal. You can start off simple, saying, “I’ve noticed that you haven’t seemed as engaged with your work recently. I want to ensure you feel set up for success, but I’m not seeing the results I’d hoped for—I was expecting you to be further along on this project. Can you walk me through the struggles that might be contributing to this so we can work on a path forward together?”
You should still enforce the company’s performance standards and the expectations for quality work, but be empathetic and compassionate where you can. If you can change a deadline or delegate some of their work to another team member, that might be a great short-term solution as you work through the larger root cause.
Here are some common questions and themes that may help you uncover the core issue.
Are they experiencing personal struggles that impact their professional work?
Through this discussion, you might find out that they are struggling with something quite serious in their life, such as grief, complicated relationships, or an illness. It’s impossible to leave these at the door, and it may be causing their professional performance to suffer.
If they share a personal issue with you, be compassionate and let them know that you’ll respect their confidentiality to the extent possible in order to support them. While there is little a leader can do to solve personal challenges, this opens the door to many opportunities for support and clarity. Would a week of PTO help clear their head? Are there other resources you offer that might bring comfort or support? Thank them for sharing—being aware of their situation can help open the door to more honest, two-way conversations.
It's important to note that in a scenario where the employee discloses a medical condition that impacts their ability to perform certain components of their work duties, you may be legally required to conduct a reasonable accommodation process to help them perform their duties successfully.
Are they burned out or bored?
Employee burnout is ever-growing and it can happen to anyone—even someone who was once your star employee. If burnout is the issue, it won’t go away if you simply ignore it or give the employee a week off. This blog post from Harvard Business Review has some great practical solutions for dealing with the nuance of different types of employee burnout.
Ironically, in some situations, employees may feel burnout because they aren’t being challenged enough, or they don’t feel like they have the autonomy or level of trust they’d hoped for. If that’s the case, here are some ideas to make them feel more stimulated:
Seek input and ask them about what type of projects they're interested in, or if you can help unlock them in any way to help prioritize their work.
Involve them across the organization to empower them and provide upskilling opportunities. For example, if you have mentorship or shadowing programs, or if they would be a good fit for a cross-functional project.
Give them access to learning opportunities so they can improve their skills. If you don’t already have a learning and development budget, consider developing one or offering access to a learning platform.
Challenge them by giving them a stretch goal, or delegate a new project for them to handle on their own.
Do they believe their effort will lead to a meaningful reward?
Sometimes when employees are not fulfilling their responsibilities at work, they are telling themselves that it “doesn’t matter” or that it “won’t affect anything anyway.” This can be a key indicator that there is a breakdown in their personal motivators, and it’s worth it to diagnose where that disconnect might be. According to Victor Vroom’s Expectancy Theory of Motivation, employees are motivated to act in certain ways depending on what they expect will come from their actions and behaviors.
Consider some of these questions when it comes to your own employee:
Is there an issue with the perceived achievability of the goals? You can dig into what’s unclear here and whether it's imposter syndrome or they truly believe the expectations are unattainable.
Is it that they don’t believe they will be recognized or rewarded for achieving their goals? You can proactively share how the effort will be rewarded at the company and how you advocate for this, whether that's related to the company’s business goals or their personal career path.
Or, is it that the rewards available aren’t meaningful to them? This is maybe the most complex of all, because it is rooted in their personal values. If a leader can effectively determine what their employee values, they can tailor the rewards to motivate employees in order to get the highest result.
Understanding which of the above is impacting your employee's view of work can be a huge lightbulb moment and can give you a much better signal to determine next steps.
Show Them How They Are Affecting the Team
Often when employees are lacking motivation or drive at work, they retreat within themselves. But naturally, as humans, we are generally inclined to help and show up for each other. Remind them that this work is bigger than our individual parts, and that we are on a team with shared goals. This explicit illustration of impact can be a powerful message and inspire them to action.
For example, you might say something like, “I was really counting on you to have this plan finished by this morning. Any delay in completing this puts the rest of the team in a tough spot and will push out our projected goal. The others are looking forward to getting started on this project and they're eager to share and celebrate the work with the rest of the company."
This is even more important to address if they are a manager. You might say, “As a leader on this team, you set the bar for performance expectations and etiquette. You have an opportunity to inspire your team to reach new heights. When you demonstrate behaviors that exhibit underdeveloped or unorganized work, like this project plan, you send a message that we as a company will tolerate these standards, and that doesn't set anyone up for success. It’s important to inspire the team with clarity and attention, and hold them accountable to results.”
If you’ve exhausted other avenues, utilize disciplinary action
If you've made several attempts to improve performance to no avail, you can command more serious attention to the consequences they face. For the health of an organization, employees should be expected to perform their work to the same level as all other similarly-situated employees. A manager’s fear of adverse action can have damaging effects on the broader team.
Perhaps you give them a written warning or place them on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). Sometimes the severity of this action is enough to spur them into increased effort. Or, perhaps you’ve reached the end of the road and do not believe success is possible given the fair chances previously provided. You might even realize that the employee is simply not well suited to the position, whether it was a bad hire or changed business needs. You can learn from this and transition them out of the team with dignity, shifting your focus to finding other candidates.
No matter which pathway, remember to document the process every step of the way and act in accordance with company policy. If there is no policy, act in a way that is fair and consistent across the organization. While these conversations are never easy, remember it is often kindest to be transparent and clear with the employee to work toward the best outcome for all parties.
This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, legal or tax advice. If you have any legal or tax questions regarding this content or related issues, then you should consult with your professional legal or tax advisor.