Leadership

Six tips for dealing with underachievers

Many organizations have underachievers. Most, unfortunately, don't know how to deal with them proactively. Leadership coach John M. McKee provides his favorite tips to get things moving forward.

"Dear Coach McKee, I've got a challenge: One of my team members, Paul, is a chronic underachiever. He's not performing to standard. He's a smart enough guy, and I know he's capable of more.

I've talked to him about it, but nothing has changed. Should I face facts and just let him go? We work in a small market, and it could take a long time to replace him. Any advice for how to get him motivated?" - Janice, Chicoutimi, Quebec.

Janice, although it's small comfort, the problem you're facing is a fairly common one and occurs in every country. I recognize that it would be tempting to just dump Paul if you had a bigger talent pool up there, but the fact is you're not alone with this hassle. Less than 15% of senior managers say their organizations deal with underperformers effectively, according to a U.S. national survey.

Here are six of my favorite tips for helping motivate chronic underachievers. These work in almost any situation or job role:

1. Recognize that you, as supervisor, are in the best position to deal with your less-than-perfect performers. It's tempting to call in HR or even an outsider to "fix" the issue when people are involved, but you know Paul, and the job requirements, best. 2. Deal with it head on. This is the time to flex your manager muscles. I'm not saying that you should lose your composure, but you need to tell Paul that he is not performing satisfactorily. Find out if anything's wrong, or if there are problems you need to know about it. That includes stuff outside of work. 3. Verify his perspective. Does he clearly know what his performance metrics are? Use open-ended questions starting with Who? What? Where? When? and How? and drill down to ascertain that he understands his role and what's expected quantitatively. How does he regard his performance? You may find out he thinks he's doing as much or more than others already. 4. Check if you have the right tools in the tool chest. Poorly performing Paul may have problems with his tools of the trade. This is a common issue for those working with computers. 5. Determine if team players are playing well together. Every department head has seen how certain people simply rub each other the wrong way. Track performance history to see if new a coworker's arrival has impacted the performance or productivity as far back as possible. 6. Evaluate leadership issues. This is often the issue. It's possible that you're the problem. How often do you discuss goals, objectives, and results openly in a team environment? The best leaders do, and their team members recognize it. So, share successes and failures openly. Salute the good performers and encourage everyone to up their game. Help weak players to understand that they need to improve because they're holding the team back.

About

John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, 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...

27 comments
count_zero_interuptus
count_zero_interuptus

And soon we will give up on teaching cursive writing for a plethora of cop-out reasons. Mostly laziness.

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

Nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with putting two spaces after the end of a sentence. In fact, I did my master's thesis with that formatting. Turns out that it does have a purpose, even in computer word processing. It works very well to distinguish between an abbreviation (e.g. e.g. or i.e.), and the period at the end of a sentence. Andifyou'rethathungupaboutspacesthenjusttrywritingwithoutthemandseehowwellyourmessagecomesthrough!

RW17
RW17

... to their superiors. I see a 5/95 ratio in favour of the people who are promoted for being simple "arse-kissers" to their superiors. These managers do not lead people... they simply recite their instructions to their subordinates and then say "we can't do anything to respond... it's upper management's wishes". What the H-e-double-hockey-sticks is that? Seriously... you are a "manager": a manager of subordinates who's real job is to motivate these subordinates, take their concerns to upper management, defend their subordinates, and build a cohesive unit of their team that maximizes the performance of that team! Just look at the job description you first printed off in order to reply to... does it say anything about it being more important for you to be a "yes man" instead of leading your workers? Any time I see an under-performer of a team, I see the "coach" of that team as the first and second cause of that under-performance. If it comes to a third cause that needs to be rectified, after the first two causes are remedied fully, then that is the employee themselves... and then you must deal with that cause through "pruning the tree to make the branches stronger".

tbmay
tbmay

Everyone is looking after their own interest. The "leader" who talks about "team" rarely is going to favor the team over himself. I've seen this evidenced repeatedly by these leaders leaving their "team" for another "team" to make more money. Some "overachievers" are gung-ho, in the hope that their "go-getterness" will be noted and will make them look much better than their peers. That's not about the team. That's about me looking better that you. How is that teamwork? I was one of them once. Lot of gray in my head now. My priorities....God and family. I work to provide for the family. I have an obligation to do a good job for the people that pay me; however, silly little managerisms like "the team" have no effect on me. I've heard it all before. TOO many times. Jobs are a by-product of the process of making a profit for business owners. Nothing more, nothing less. Employees are costs to the owners. Here's a novel idea, just shoot your people straight. Let them know what they need to get done. Make sure they have the tools and training to do it. If it doesn't work out, at that point, it doesn't work out.

amalgupta
amalgupta

Performance is outcome of Opportunity, Ability & Motivation (OAM). Ability is a very broad term and includes knowhow, knowledge, skills, experience, expertise, potential etc. As per the person's Ability you give him an Opportunity to perform by giving him a job, task, activity, project or assignment to do. And you expect a good Performance as outcome. There is a third factor which is missing in the above equation. Motivation. This sits between Ability and Opportunity. Motivation makes one apply his/her Abilities successfully to the Opportunies given - and then one can expect good Performance as outcome. So it is important to: 1. Ensure that your people have the right Abilities. If not then use methods to create/enhance/refine their Abilities. Some methods are: training, coaching, mentoring etc. You choose a suitable method. 2. Ensure that you provide right Opportunities to your people - i.e. as per their Abilities. It is important to do a good mapping between Abilities that they possess and the Opportunities that they are given. So, for example, do a good mapping between say Skills and Job Responsibilities. 3. Ensure that the right level of Motivation either exists or gets created while they are trying to Perform. Motivation can be created/enhanced in many ways - appraising, rewarding, recognizing, supporting, facilitating, encouraging, responding, resolving etc. Above is not very difficult to ensure but is not very easy either. It needs sincerity and transparency on the manager's part. Firstly, as manager, just accept that there is something not working very well on at least one of the above three aspects. Accept that either not enough has been done to ensure the right level of abilities in the team, or not a good mapping has been done between abilities and opportunities while allocating work/responsibilities to people, or the right level of motivation has not been ensured in the work environment. Once accepted it becomes quite easy to put everything as bullet points and have a plan for each of the bullet points. Don't micro-engineer. Do a high level planning and to plug in micro details involve others - preferably your own team and their supervisors. People are smart and they will understand and pick the right signals. If you do it with the right level of sincerity then they will participate in it constructively. You initiate and they will take it forward themselves. Yes, for certain things like arranging for a specialized training, or creating a new reward system you may need organizational help and help of people from outside your team.

dougwong
dougwong

In addition to the points mentioned, I would like to add this point based on my experience. I used to lead teams of tech support specialists. Everyone is different - be it skills, experience or motivation. I think we all fall into the inverted bell-shaped distribution curve. So at the end, I place them accordingly. The high achievers continue to do high value support. Those high numbers in the middle cater to the masses. The 'under-achievers'? I let them do the 'more tedious and in the background' types of work. It worked.

tony.frost
tony.frost

I spend my time bringing streams of work back on line. I find that there are normally three issues. 1. A lack of clear vision - people don't know what they are meant to do 2. Communications - various parts of the team not providing the support they should to others or making assumptions and not asking the questions they should. 3. Authority - The person who has to make the quick decisions that keep the work rolling doesn't have the authority, or knowledge, or experience and so everything stops while they go and find the answer. While this applies primarily to teams working in a project type environment I have found that it also applies to under performing individuals. Get an under performer to understand what is expected of him or her, that what they do is appreciated and makes an important contribution to the teams goal and that they personally are respected as part of the team, and you will not have an underperformer anymore.

ferchr
ferchr

This is very accurate. My only addtion would be "Good Leaders know that you are only as good as the TEAM you work with/lead." Also, for a TEAM to succeed, all members must feel their contributions count.

nonimportantname
nonimportantname

I can speak to that one. Some folks fail to realize their own roles in their team's performance or lack thereof. Communication, communication, communication! There's absolutely no reason to NOT communicate effectively and OFTEN. Also, singling out only the failures of a team is a sure way to get everyone to perform at an even lower level if you don't find time to give them their accolades at an equally, or obviously more frequent, basis. Some folks just should not be leaders.

tcollins
tcollins

Interesting and sound advice from what I can tell based upon my experiences. I think a great next article would be titled Six Tips For Dealing With Overachievers. For me overachievers are equally or worse to deal with, not because I am an underachiever but simply because I try to maintain a good work life balance. Like most IT people my days often span 15 or more hours and will regularly touch my weekend or even vacation time. But I try very hard to dedicate time to my family and my personal interests and I find that the overachievers that I work with (or have worked with in the past) don't respect those times. As a matter of fact they are often offended that I am not will to drop everything for a non-emergent issue (obviously there are issues and things that demand my immediate attention).

bboyd
bboyd

I'm 3 months behind on task and have made that fact known at all my group meetings for that last year. I'm doing tasks that represent work that three people split up over the course of two years in 18 months time. I've started dragging my heels because anything I do is neither respected, rewarded nor acknowledged. If nothing changes I'll just find a new job, get a raise and maybe do something I like more for someone who isn't an a........

blarman
blarman

If you are the manager, have you taken the time to sit down with the person and map out their goals and expectations for the coming year? Have you laid out on paper how performance is measured? Have you laid out what the person gets in return for their best work? If the answer is no, no, and "it's their job", YOU are the problem. Employment is a mutually beneficial arrangement - you get their services and in return, they get a paycheck. That relationship can be dramatically enhanced by simply making sure that everyone understands what each side gets out of the deal. And remember - it isn't a one-sided deal either. If someone is underperforming, here are some questions you need to be able to answer: 1) Is there something going on outside of work, ie divorce, family emergency, etc. that is distracting them? 2) Do they know what is expected of them and is there a common place to both manager and employee to view performance status? 3) Have you identified what motivates the person? (Hint: most studies have found money is rarely the primary motivator) 4) What future with the company can you present to the individual? (If they have no motivation to seek for something better, they won't.) 5) How would the employee characterize your working relationship with them? Is it different than how YOU would characterize the relationship? (9 out of 10 this will be YES) My advice: prove that you as the manager have done everything you can do to care about that person's future. Most employees want to be successful, but my guess is that a majority of underachievers just want to know they are still important.

eridonis
eridonis

The strategy of discussing goals, objectives, responsibilities, and successes and failures in the team setting is a good one. I have seen people work very hard to achieve impressive goals, only to have management ignore the effort and even the result! Do that a few times and you can turn anyone into an underachiever. Or, if someone is consistently doing something that should be addressed by management--whether it's tardiness, policy violations, or bullying, etc.--and it doesn't get addressed, others may decide to give up on trying to achieve. It is disheartening to watch either scenario. Also, John, it looks as though you may be using 2 spaces between sentances. You know that is just for typewriters, right? Word processing adjusts spacing for you. I wouldn't mention it, but it sticks outlike someone using the carriage return at the end of a line ;)

erh7771
erh7771

When there are underachievers the first thing I look and ask for is the well defined goals that are linked to managers objectives. The absence of them is usually a tell tale that someone on the team isn't going to be aware of, to a working degree, the direction the manager THINKS everyone else should know of. I've run into people who are more or less demoralized for the most part but rarely is there a person who just says "F*** it, I want this job and I know the standards but I'm not going to live up to them" unless they're hooked up.

mwclarke1
mwclarke1

respect, as soon as the first sentence in your reply was another of the too many overused buzzwords you were lost to me.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

I've seen that a lot. It's amazing how many front line supervisors don't have the authority necesary to do what's required. Hurry up and wait. When you finally get someone motivated to help push with a project and then tell them, "We have to wait for approval", before doing the next step. That is a demotivator.

fire622
fire622

All too often the Leaders on a Team are not the Supervisors and likewise more often than not, the Supervisors are not the Leaders. One of the few places I have seen this consistently contradicted, however, is professional sports franchises - where Captains tend to be Leaders. Unfortunately this doesn't seem to apply often enough in "professional" workplaces ... Apply the following question to a Professional Sports Team as well as to your own Workplace: How often is the player who has been made "Supervisor/Captain" the one with the most years on the Team (aka seniority), the best connections, the Manager's buddy, or the player who has the best motivational skills & has the most respect of their fellow coworkers/players?

RW17
RW17

I work for a company that professes work life balance (via lip-service and the occassional distributed slide show) and yet rewards in a fashion that is completely in contradictory fashion. Individuals have been hired recently (past 2 yars) that bring a couple of "culturally different from N.A." things to present themselves as overachievers and they make their direct colleagues look bad as a result. (1) They volunteer for everything when "in front" of superiors, says "I can do that", and then follow up with their colleagues by either (i) attempting to pass the buck of their commitment to others, or (ii) forwarding on precendent documents that illustrate that their "knowing how to do that" really means "I have documentation from someone else who has done that"... a "credit" reallocation by them for the benefit of the evaluation of superiors (aka - in front of superiors, they simply lie about their levels of knowledge). (2) They spend every waking hour working, and have set up their personal childless situation so that their spouse does not work, but instead takes care of every home-related task (cooking, groceries, dry-cleaning, even typing up some work documents for them)... effectively, those of us who are single are fighting a team of two who are attempting to comparatively overperform. Maybe I am simply jealous. However, I, like the majority of my colleagues, put in 50+ hours every week but are negatively evaluated for not putting in 80+ hours every week as some are doing. My jealousy does not come from under-commitment, under-achieving, or inferior diligence. My jealousy comes from feeling committing to 2700 hours per year dedicated to intense work and work-related travel, but this being appraised as inferior to others who do 3600 hours of work and work-related travel per year... all for a salary based on 8 hours per day. Have you ever watched the movie Hot Fuzz? I'd like to think "re-assignment of the overachiever" reflects reality, but it does not. I am 120-140% busy in my life but I can not compete against a team of two's production. It's all about production versus cost in consulting. Our costs are equal... but the "overachiever" type I am speaking of simply makes many colleagues who have children or who are single look bad, and then celebrates their successes in their colleagues faces.

blarman
blarman

Seems to me that there is an executive disease going around that dictates 24-7-365 involvement in work. Really what that means is that many managers haven't properly trained and delegated and trusted so that others can make good decisions without constant supervision. It's time to stop spending so much time telling people what to do (which takes up all your time and prevents you from getting the necessary non-work time in your schedule) and let them go do it. Review to make sure things were done appropriately, but give your people a chance to grow and learn for themselves. Do you want drones or do you want people who can step up and lead?

nonimportantname
nonimportantname

You've hit the nail on the head...at least from my perspective!

toni.bowers
toni.bowers

Many of us were raised to do the two-space thing. As far as it being "just for typewriters," it's not like there was a official memo or anything, thus "You know that is just for typewriters, right?" was a little unnecessarily sarcastic. I still do two spaces sometimes, depending on the font used, for readability. Let's all try to concentrate on the bigger issues and be a little more helpful on the small ones.

billy
billy

That was a nice addition eridonis and I liked your comment just as much as the article. I found myself shaking my head in agreement as I read it. I like constructive criticism as much as the next guy would or should. So I hope you will get a kick out of this. I could not help but notice the many errors in your own critique with your last paragraph. If you are going to 'set him straight' on things, you should probably lead by example. Your paragraph: Also, John, it looks as though you may be using 2 spaces between sentances. You know that is just for typewriters, right? Word processing adjusts spacing for you. I wouldn't mention it, but it sticks outlike someone using the carriage return at the end of a line Let us take a look at what really caught my eye that I cannot believe anyone else has pointed out, that I will try to do gracefully: - Abbreviating is not allowed in anything professional - the #2 instead of spelling it out? - My dictionary spells sentances as sentences. - Again, since we are getting picky and pointing out things, another abbreviation, wouldn't; would not. - My dictionary does not have the word outlike in there, but does have out like. - My favorite part was that since you are a stickler for punctuation and spacing, it would seem that you would have ended your last sentence with a period. - And last, but not least, I do not think it is proper etiquette to attack an informative post whose subject was not about punctuation and sentence structure. I googled your thoughts on that and the verdict still seems to not have come in yet. I think we could both find just as many sites saying the contrary. For me personally, I think consistency is the key. And for anyone that is old school and was taught keyboarding on a typewriter, I think we will always prefer the double space. Interestingly enough, my latest version of Word 2010 does not suggest corrections either way on single or double spacing after the end of a sentence, with another complete sentence after it.

Trilln451
Trilln451

I'm surprised that people even NOTICE the double-space thing, but ever since the article in Slate, it seem that I see the issue raised more often. What a silly thing! It sounds to me like someone saying "You type like an old person, people are going to think you're old & out-of-date, old person!" I'm a double-spacer myself - and I'd be curious to hear from human resource professionals whether or not that's something they notice when considering applications. I mention that because obviously there's the hot-button issue of unspoken ageism in tech fields. And eridonis, I don't mean to give you a hard time, your response is very graceful and well-done. I didn't get any memo, myself, and I like the way that a double-space keeps sentences distinct. Can't we just call them acceptable stylistic differences and leave it at that?

eridonis
eridonis

Thanks billy and toni.bowers. You are right. I made mistakes in my post. I am too dependent on the capabilities of my word processor and did not take enough care to type correctly. And I was informal. I thought blogs were informal. Now I know I was wrong about that. (So I should not have used the contractions (not abbreviations) I did in the earlier part of my post either???the part you had no quarrel with (it???s, doesn???t). You were probably only gracefully criticizing my unprofessionalism in the parts of my post you disagreed with. The parts you agreed with were fine being unprofessional.) I certainly wasn't trying to be sarcastic or mean or snarky or anything else in my earlier post. I thought I was helping to spread the word. I really was toni.bowers, I swear. I thought my ???just for typewriters, right???? phrasing was the shortest way to get the point across and sound friendly and helpful in the process. If I saw someone using a carriage return at the end of a line I would do the same thing. (Even if I thought the person had learned on a typewriter and might prefer to hit the carriage return at the end of each line.) Let me say that I am not a stickler of punctuation and spacing so much as someone who would like to help everyone learn to abandon this old practice. Many people did get the memo about using two spaces in old typing classes. When we switched to word processors there were memos, but apparently not everyone got them. In fact, I have seen high school and college teachers still teaching two spaces even today. You are right that Word 2010 doesn???t address this. Word 97 and 2000 did. Many word processing programs addressed this in the 90???s. Apparently they have given up. Now, since there has been so much time elapsed with people sticking to archaic ways, some say it is OK to use either spacing. I think that is a mistake. Others disagree. At least let me take this opportunity to gently ask you to avoid it when using full justification. (Not the case here, I mean in future circumstances.) That looks terrible and breaks up the flow of reading. And you are right that you can find posts of both opinions. That probably means I shouldn???t have stated mine here. Please do accept, though, that my intention was not to hurt, but to help. I did not mean to offend anyone. And you all have my apology for doing so; especially the fine author.

lnichols949
lnichols949

I am deeply disappointed in myself for having taken the time during my lunch hour to read eridonis' post and subsequent responses. When I'm old and on my death bed, I'll wish I had this time back. (yes I double spaced after the '.' !)

billy
billy

Touche on a great response eridonis! I think we could all take notes on such a humble reply. I am thinking you probably seen where that was easily misunderstood from where you said you were going with that. And more so, I think you would probably agree that it did have a little sting in it. So, I felt both humbled and relieved when I read what you had to say back. I was actually hoping you would clarify things a little, and I do not believe I could have done better myself. On a much lighter side, I noticed you stood your ground, as well you should have. Archaic though? Oh my goodness!!... Why not go ahead and say it is an act of terrorism?! The next thing you know, you will be questioning my order of question marks and explanation points... You say Microsoft gave up - I say they came to a better understanding. haha (For clarification, this was my way of making a joke out of it. I thought it was pretty funny and thought you would too.) And anyways..., trying to turn things back towards the author of the article that brought us all together here, John McKee turns out to be an accomplished writer with a very interesting book I just ordered. You can google him or click on his name where it will show his website. I only mention it because our responses to each other caused me to research him and find that. Again, what a nice apology. My best wishes to all... PS - i don't think u should 2nd guess yourself - i do think blogs r meant 2 b informal - i tried hard not to make errors myself just because of the nature of the reply, but still found more than a few in my own - i edited, and edited, and edited 'til i thought it was right, so that u wouldn't find an error - i even found myself copying/pasting into word to 'make sure' - so hey, its all good! :)