How to kickstart an underachiever's performance

Underachievers can be a burden on an otherwise productive team. As a business and leadership coach John M McKee has seen a lot and here he discusses different tactics and tips used successfully to help get everyone producing effectively.

"We're going to have to let Sarah go. Unless you can help get her performance back up to speed."

And with that comment, another client gets assigned to work with me for "remedial coaching."

It didn't need to come to this. And it shouldn't. Coaching can be expensive (average rates for an executive coach range from about $150 to $600/hr in the US) and it won't always fix an individual's productivity issues. But, according to research done a couple of years ago by Leadership IQ in Washington DC, only about 14% of senior executives believe their companies do a decent job of dealing with poor performers. Most companies let productivity issues build. They accept below-standard performance too frequently. This doesn't need to happen.

I've always believed that dealing with a "people issue" is much easier than a "business issue." Why? Because you can talk to a human being who needs some direction or help. It's not that easy to turn around a declining marketplace, or get increasing returns in a poor local economy. But, as the research shows, most team leaders wouldn't agree. They recognize that their employers simply don't deal with underperformers very well.

Most say it's because they simply don't know how to deal with these issues. Fair enough. But before you reach for the phone book to call the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches, here are a few actions to try:

1. Accept that you, as the supervisor, are the best person to deal with this situation. Not the HR Department or the lawyers. In most cases they don't know the situation or individual as well as you. 2. Address the issue directly. Tell the underachiever that his performance isn't up to standard. Ask if something is wrong. If there's an issue outside of work, your team member may have been reluctant to talk about it. But whatever is affecting the person's job contributions, you need to know about it. If it's a long-term problem, how you want to deal with the employee is probably different (scaling back the job for example) than if it's a short-term issue. 3. If there is no outside issue, it may be one of understanding. One of my clients told me last week about a salesperson who was far off targeted sales. After sitting together for about 30 minutes the supervisor realized that - even though she'd been there for years - the salesperson was not clear on the goals and objectives of her job. 4. Does the individual have the right tools? Your underachiever's performance problems may be beyond his or her ability to fix. This is pretty common in IT areas where standards can be set in place before there's a proper understanding of what equipment or training is needed to manage the hassle. 5. The Law of Unintended Consequences is alive and well. Often a person's productivity can go down due to things that were expected to improve output. I've seen individual productivity fall drastically after "improvements" were made to offices, or when team members were added or promoted, after the switch over to new vendor systems, and even new phones slowing down otherwise solid individuals. 6. Finally, how often do you actually talk about performance? The best contributors will often cite their boss as the reason they are so good. When one is constantly given "mini -reviews" they are more conscious of their productivity and usually perform at a higher level. On the other hand, bosses who wait until the "annual appraisal time" to discuss how one is doing are often shown to have the lowest performers underneath.

Where do you fit?


Leadership Coach


John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

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