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How to Coach Underperforming Employees

Frustration is a common feeling leaders have when an underperforming employee isn’t meeting expectations. Your actions are impacted by how you think and feel, and frustration can lead to criticism or punishment of an underperformer. But, does retribution truly improve the situation?

As a leader, your primary responsibility is to develop and empower the individuals within your team. When faced with an underperforming employee, the best approach is to coach them with empathy and a genuine desire to help them succeed. By adopting a coaching mindset, you can unlock the potential of your team members and cultivate a work environment for high-performing teams. Here are 6 steps to coach an underperformed:

Step 1: Lead with Emotional Intelligence

Before doing anything, pause to understand the situation and separate facts from opinions. Approaching the situation from a place of care, not anger, has benefits for you and your team members. Collect the facts by asking these questions:

  • What are your expectations for the role?
  • Have those expectations been communicated?
  • What behaviors do I see?
  • What behaviors are lacking?
  • What don’t I know?
  • What assumption am I making?

Step 2: Schedule a One-on-One Meeting

After taking time to reflect on the current state, schedule a one-on-one meeting with your team member to discuss the performance issues. Engaging in open communication is the pathway to uncovering the root cause of underperformance. Your primary goal at this stage is to create a supportive atmosphere where they feel comfortable sharing honestly. Start by inviting them to share their experience and perspective by asking open-ended questions such as:

  • How is it going?
  • What are you the most proud of lately?
  • What has challenged you lately?
  • What is your greatest frustration in your role?
  • How would you describe your workload?
  • What feedback do you have for me?

After you ask a question, give your full attention and listen without judgment. This approach can uncover underlying issues like challenges in their personal life, lack of motivation, burnout, or inadequate training.

Step 3: Share Your Perspective of the Poor Performance

After your team member provides their perspective, share your observations. Start by describing your expectations for the role. Pause to see if your team member is aligned to those expectations. Once you’ve established what good performance looks like, describe the low performance you are observing.

It’s important to focus on observed behaviors and leave out your opinion of those employee performance behaviors. For example, rather than telling someone that they, “don’t care about their work” or are “lazy,” articulate specifics like, “missed a team meeting” or “didn’t properly proofread a document.”

Step 4: Explore Next Steps and Co-Create a Personal Growth Plan

When coaching for growth, it's crucial to give team members space to explore their own options and take ownership of the change process. First, express your belief in their strengths and potential. Then, ask open-ended questions to shift their mindset toward taking actionable steps:

  • What resources would help?
  • How can I help you?
  • What options can you try?
  • What is one thing you’re willing to try?

When you encourage employees to identify solutions themselves, you challenge them to take responsibility while offering guidance along the way. With next steps identified, transition the conversation to set clear expectations and create an action plan. Together, develop a detailed growth plan with their input that includes agreed-upon:

  • Performance goals
  • Achievable milestones
  • Realistic timeframes

When focusing on measurable results, it’s critical to address the root cause of the performance issues. This may involve building their skills, providing additional training, reducing burnout factors, and increasing motivators.

Step 5: Provide Ongoing Support and Mentoring

Behavior change is a process that takes time and commitment. Leverage the talent of your entire team and partner the team member with a mentor who can help them strengthen or develop their skill set. Consider what executive coaching, leadership development opportunities, or training programs may be available to support the success of their goals.  

Step 6: Be an Accountability Partner

Schedule regular meetings to check in and assess progress, provide constructive feedback, recognize achievements, and adjust the action plan as needed. Being an accountability partner demonstrates an investment in their success and reinforces your commitment to their growth. By having frank discussions and holding them responsible for improvement milestones, you empower them to take ownership while offering support.

Your most important role as a leader is to develop the people in your span of care. When you can coach an underperforming employee through this approach, you’re providing a safe space for them to grow.

Meet the Author

Jessie Turner

Leader, Marketing and Brand

Responsible for all client experience learning materials, she enjoys approaching content with a creative lens to develop tools and materials that aid and enhance the learners’ experience.

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Sara Hannah

Managing Partner

As Managing Partner, Sara oversees the efforts to help client organizations understand the intersection between people, culture, and a thriving business model.

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