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Strategies for Supporting Underperforming Team Members

“How do I help an employee who won’t help themselves?”

Oofta! That’s a doozey. And as a leader or business owner that probably feels familiar in one way or another to you.

“I’ve given them support for big things and little things, I have mentored them in their role, I’ve guided them through questions, and provided plenty of resources. What else is there to do?!”

There’s more than meets the eye in these situations, and it’s uber important to unpack these situations as soon as you see them happening because of all that lies beneath.



The Elephants in your boardroom here, disguise themselves as “patience,” which we all have in limited supply. But when they remove their glasses and temporary mustache – SURPRISE! – it’s really “Mr. Frustration” who always brings his group of mischief-makers named “Resentment,” “Anger,” “Disappointment,” “Insecurity,” “Worry,” “Shame”… and so on, and so forth… It’s a stampede!!!!


To put it another way, here’s what happens for you as the leader or owner if you let this go on for too long:

  1. It can be frustrating when an employee doesn’t seem to be making progress despite your best efforts to support them. It can also feel really disappointing because this is not the scenario you pictured when you hired them.
  2. This situation causes a lot of mental stress. And anger or even sadness creep in when we feel like we are trying really hard for something and not seeing the results we want.
  3. In addition to these emotions, you may be worrying about the impact of the employee’s performance on the company, feeling overwhelmed by the extra work you have to take on to compensate for the employee’s shortcomings, or struggling to come up with new ways to support the employee.

And here’s what’s happening for your employee – because this is “underperformance” is happening to them too:

  1. They may be feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or stressed about their job performance. And then they are worried about job security, and they go to bed concerned if they’ll keep waking up with a job.
  2. They may also be feeling frustrated or discouraged if they feel like they’re not making progress despite their efforts. And then they become insecure about their abilities and the expectations placed on them.
  3. We can also consider that the employee may be experiencing personal issues outside of work that are impacting their performance, such as family problems, health issues, or financial stress.
  4. And we should keep in mind that if the employee is not receptive to feedback or is resistant to taking steps to improve, it’s possible that they may be experiencing something deeper that requires support from a mental health professional. [**it’s important to see when this may be the case and recognize that the best thing we can do as their leader is to take our hands off the problem, and just provide the employee the type of support they need to access that professional**].


So needless to say this is a tough situation for all involved. However, there are a few things you can try before giving up on the situation or the employee:

  1. Be clear about your expectations: If you think you’ve already done this, check in one more time and be brutally honest about whether you’ve truly given them clarity, or if there was a hint of impatience behind the info you’ve given (a.k.a. rushed and abbreviated information).
  2. Provide feedback: And before you say “duh, Amanda,” I mean to confront them… Be candid. Being candid does not mean be an A-hole. But don’t dance around the subject either. We don’t need “the sandwich method” here. (If you struggle in this area, let me know. I have a 6-step process that may help with your more confrontational conversations – happy to share it).
  3. Identify any obstacles: Ask the employee directly if they see any obstacles that prevent them from performing at their best. And solicit feedback from other team members. When you do, be sure to not cross any lines of disrespect or confidentiality, but collective intelligence can often get us out of a pickle.
  4. Offer outsourced training: If the employee lacks certain skills or knowledge, offer to provide additional training or education to help them improve. This might be someone outside your workplace like hired workshops, courses, programs, or even coaching.
  5. Take your hands off: There may be a cycle happening where the employee is getting in their own way and sabotaging your support. And despite your encouragement they are not reaching out to their peers for help either. So determine who else on the team exemplifies the skills you are wanting to foster in this employee, and ask that peer to offer mentorship.
  6. Consider a different role: If the employee is simply not a good fit for their current role, and you have the option, consider offering them a different position within the company. It’s possible that they will excel in a different role that better suits their skills and personality.
  7. Set clear outcomes: Ultimately, if the employee continues to underperform despite your efforts to help them, it may be necessary to set clear consequences for their lack of progress. If the situation leads to termination, that’s the part that sucks the most. But sometimes it’s truly not personal – it’s just not a good fit.

Remember that every situation is unique, and it’s important to handle each one individually.

When these things are happening, be sure that you (as the employer) recognize and acknowledge your mental stressors, as they can have a negative impact on your own well-being (and your ability to lead effectively). Getting yourself to a better place, also allows you to have the mental space to recognize the employee’s perspective with more empathy and/or compassion.

Be patient (genuinely) in your efforts to help the employee. And at the same time be persistent for the good of the company. Your persistence is needed in order to avoid that stampede of Elephants from entering the boardroom. In the end it may mean you need to prepare to make a tough decision – OR it may mean you and your employee end up living happily ever after together.


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