2 employees talking over a laptop

Substandard performance is inevitable in the workplace. Uncomfortable, awkward, and emotional situations will never disappear completely, and informing a team member that they are underperforming certainly qualifies.

The key to overcoming this roadblock is understanding how to productively navigate the conversation and build the right strategies, both of which help navigate performance roadblocks and result in a stronger team.

This template provides a step-by-step guide on how to tell a team member they are underperforming and, more importantly, how to get them back on track.

Common Underlying Causes of Poor Performance

There are several common underlying causes of poor performance. We encourage you to take the time to read through these to understand your team members’ perspectives and initiate honest and productive conversations.

  • Poor communication
  • Feelings of unimportance in one’s role
  • Lack of motivation
  • Stressful work environment
  • Insufficient onboarding or training
  • Challenging personal circumstances

Steps to Take When Confronting an Underperforming Team Member

While this conversation may be uncomfortable, it can help create unity and establish understanding between you and your team member. Being able to drive courageous conversations is a necessity in any successful business.

1. Clearly Address the Areas of Underperformance

Be direct and clear about the exact areas in which your team member has underperformed. Use visuals or documentation to communicate your concern(s).

Example phrases to drive the discussion include:

  • I’ve noticed there’s been a dip in the quality of work lately.
  • It seems that X has been giving you a hard time lately. What parts of X do you find difficult?

2. Explain Why It Matters

The why is pivotal to providing context around the performance issue. How is it affecting teams and/or company goals? Offer the bigger picture.

This can include statements like:

  • I’ve noticed there’s been a dip in the quality of work lately. As a result, other team members have had to adjust the amount of time they are spending on X project.
  • I’ve noticed that you’ve been having more missed deadlines than usual. As a result, the fulfillment team has been scrambling to get products out to clients on time, which can impact client churn.

3. Present Key Metrics and Examples

Present metrics or examples to offer context around the issues. If you’ve used visuals/documentation in Step 1, feel free to add metrics and/or examples to those materials.

Metrics and examples may include:

  • Numbers/values that illustrate the decline in performance
  • A specific project (or stage in that project) where the team member failed to fulfill expectations

talking with employee sitting across from each other

4. Cover Any Misaligned Perspectives

Remember, this discussion should be a two-way conversation. Take the time to cover any misaligned perspectives.

In an ideal situation, the team member will be on the same page as you. However, in a case where there may be partial or complete disagreement, you’ll need to be prepared to talk about it.

Questions and phrases that may help steer the discussion may include:

  • Do you agree or disagree with these areas of underperformance? Why or why not?
  • I want to take the time to address any misconceptions or miscommunications that may have occurred.
  • I feel we have misaligned perspectives, and I want to take time to explore that.

5. Identify Underlying Causes

Once you have addressed the underlying causes, it is time to explore the root cause of the poor performance. This is critical to mapping out the right solutions.

Step 3 may organically lead to this topic, but here are a couple of guiding conversation starters to support you:

  • Let’s discuss the underlying causes. What do you think might have triggered this performance issue? I’m here to listen and would like to help mitigate those pain points.
  • What do you think happened that resulted in this outcome?

6. Be Candid but Caring

Being honest is important. However, sometimes honesty can come across as lack of sensitivity or tactlessness.

To foster a supportive environment, be candid but caring as you communicate. This may entail:

  • Pausing periodically to give your team member a chance to share their thoughts
  • Listening intently to what your team member is saying
  • Exploring and acknowledging the team member’s thoughts and feelings
Explore CMOE’s Coaching Skills portfolio to begin achieving results for your business coaching needs.

7. Craft a Performance-Building Plan

Performance development is a two-way street. The key here is to collaborate rather than dictate. This way, your team member receives the opportunity to contribute solutions.

You can craft a plan during the same meeting or schedule another appointment to give yourself and your team member time to reflect on the discussion and formulate ideas.

Here are some questions and statements you can present to build a game plan with your team:

  • Where do we go from here? How do we build your performance back up?
  • Let’s map out a game plan that entails X milestones to ensure we reach your performance goals.
  • I’d love to hear your thoughts on possible solutions to help improve your performance.

8. Evaluate and Adjust

Meet regularly with your team members to assess how they are progressing with their plans. Discuss what is and isn’t working and make the necessary adjustments together.

An effective plan is consistently updated based on evolving circumstances and holding the individual accountable to change. Thus, this step is key to ensuring you’re setting up your team members for success while providing them with the support they need.

For more guidance, learn about the five factors that affect work performance, and contact the CMOE team for any questions.