Poor performers can drag down your whole team. Here are some strategies for determining the underlying issues and turning those underachievers around.

“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 an hour in the United States), 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 typically say it’s because they 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.

Note: This information is based on the IT Leadership blog post “How to kickstart an underachiever’s performance.” You can also download the article as a PDF.

#1: Accept that you should be the one to handle the problem

As the supervisor, you’re 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 or her 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: Make sure there’s no confusion about the job

If there is no outside issue, the problem 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 the salesperson had been there for years, she was not clear on the goals and objectives of her job.

#4: Recognize the differences among your workers

Face reality — what worked in the past may no longer be appropriate. Today’s workforce often has teams consisting of Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers, and Millennials. Each generation has different aspirations and motivators. If you’re treating them as a homogenous group, you are bound to miss the mark with one or more of them.

#5: Make sure the right tools are available

If the underachiever doesn’t have the necessary tools, those 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.

#6: Beware of the Law of Unintended Consequences

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, when team members were added or promoted, and following the switch over to new vendor systems. I’ve even seen new phones slow down otherwise solid individuals.

#7: Consider internal coaching

The studies I review indicate that peer-coaching for performance enhancement is usually better for anyone in the organization below senior management levels. It’s less expensive and has the additional benefit of being motivational for the person you’ve asked to help.

#8: Look in the mirror

How’s your own personal feeling of motivation and enthusiasm? More than words, your actions will affect your team member’s performance. Maybe you need a coach more than your underachiever.

#9: Be firm but fair

More than anything else, employees at all levels want a boss with this style. It’s important to realize that being firm isn’t being ugly. Dodging an issue isn’t being kind; it’s just being cowardly. Most people want honest feedback and most people want to do a good job, too. Honesty can pay genuine dividends.

#10: Provide regular feedback

How often do you actually talk about performance? The best contributors will often cite their boss as the reason they’re so good. When employees are given frequent “mini-reviews,” they are more conscious of their productivity and usually perform at a higher level. On the other hand, bosses who wait until annual appraisal time to discuss how their team members are doing are often shown to have the lowest performers.

John M McKee is a contributing editor to the TechRepublic Leadership blog. A certified Business and Executive Coach, he is the president of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, with clients in 45 countries. His goal is to help 100,000 people in 2008.