Coaching an underachiever to win at work


  • Before firing someone for poor performance, try to determine the root cause of the problem.
  • Communication goes both ways. The employee must be part of the solution.
  • Develop an action plan with measurable goals.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so the old saying goes. Unmotivated members can hamper team productivity, creating a weakness in your business growth chain. However, letting a low performing employee go isn’t always the right answer.

If you can motivate that worker to meet or exceed expectations, you will retain a fully trained individual with institutional knowledge without having to spend resources training someone new needlessly.

Coaching your low performer strengthens your entire team and creates a trustworthy work environment. Here are steps to coaching an underachiever to win at work.

Act quickly and identify the root cause

The longer you allow the underachiever to underachieve, the more team resentment grows and productivity suffers. Don’t wait—the moment you realize you have a worker who is not meeting expectations, take action.

The first step is to identify the root cause of poor performance.

  • Does the employee lack the necessary skills? Implement a training process to teach or re-teach the required competency.
  • Did performance go from good to poor? Engage with the employee to determine if they realize their performance is suffering and discuss what might be hampering their ability to work effectively.
  • Do you provide actionable feedback to your employees? If not, the worker may not realize there is a problem in the first place.

Focus on facts and never assume you know the cause of any employee’s downward slide. Communicate directly with the individual. Only then can you both develop an effective action plan.

Focus on facts, and never assume you know the cause of any employee’s downward slide. Communicate directly with the individual.

Have a candid conversation

While there is no need to be cruel, it is crucial to be clear when discussing a performance issue. Delicate language and euphemisms create unnecessary misunderstandings. Describe the performance problem or behavior using fact. Always focus on the issues, not the person.

Include the employee’s strengths in your conversation and make sure communication is flowing in both directions. Resolutions work best when the employee is a willing participant in recognizing his role in the problem and developing a solution.

Find out the individual’s motivation and build on it.

Create an Action Plan

Once the employee has acknowledged the performance issue, you both work on a written action plan.

  • What measures does the employee think he or she needs to take to work better or faster?
  • Are there other options for improvement?
  • How will you measure progress?

Include the actions required of the employee, any other people involved, such as an HR representative, and yourself. Have a goal for each action to provide motivation and indicate progress.

Monitor the employee and plan progress

Don’t just set it and forget it. Remain involved throughout the process. Follow up with the employee, recognizing and rewarding improvement. If progress has stalled or reversed, engage to identify the cause of the backslide or the obstruction to improvement.

Schedule follow-up meetings every couple of weeks or on another time scale that fits the plan. Make a record of each encounter and sign off at each milestone as the employee reaches it. Provide a reward for progress and help your worker see you as a coach instead of a boss. You have a team, and you are responsible for each member’s performance, just like each member is accountable to the team.

Once the improvement plan is complete, continue to follow up, not just on an individual level but on the team’s performance overall. As the coach, you have to keep an eye on the action. People want to succeed and are happy to stretch their wings to do it. But sometimes, one of your team needs a little extra lift to make it to the height they’re capable of reaching.

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