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.

By John McKee

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...