How to handle low performers: rekindle the fire

Sometimes line managers are forced politely asked to support a new team by assigning team members. For various reasons – most importantly they likely already have enough on their plate – those line managers are not incentivized to help. Thus, they likely won’t assign their best people to your team. As a matter of fact, they will likely assign those that they are most willing to lose, their low performers. If you are leading a team it’s therefore highly likely to end up with one or several underachieving team members.

This makes the already difficult initial phase where you need to quickly demonstrate progress in order to establish the team even harder. Nevertheless, you need to get going. You need to manage this situation. Thus, It’s crucial to understand how to deal with “low performers”.

The good thing is they might end up surprising you by becoming valuable team members, if you manage to rekindle their motivational fire. Even though the topic is big enough to fill entire books, I will keep it brief here and share what I have found to consistently work.

First, some general thoughts on underachieving team members.

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People are not stupid, they are disillusioned

In my experience, low performance is not a fixed character trait. More often than not, it is a result of bad leadership that over time destroys motivation. Most people aren’t stupid. They are simply not motivated enough to care (any more). This is often caused by resigning to the bureaucracy and senseless decisions that sometimes happen in corporations.

The “underachievers” I have most frequently encountered are senior employees that have been with the companies for decades. They used to care. They used to be motivated to try new things. They wanted to have an impact. Bad leadership and the organization over time beat them into submission. It made them numb. They end up disillusioned and only do the bare minimum not to get fired. 

Don’t let that fool you. They often possess a wealth of knowledge that needs to be uncovered. The key is to somehow get them excited again. 

Purpose is the key to motivation

You need to explain why you are doing what you are doing, often. Starting with Why is the key to creating purpose. It unlocks intrinsic motivation. Explain why the team exists, what the underlying principles are, what problems you are trying to solve, and what the long term vision is. This gives purpose. It motivates. This is the key to rekindling the fire that might just make them care. 

Be authentic in doing so. Remember, they have heard it all before. Maybe they were even in your shoes at one point, motivated and pushing for change. They have seen it fail. They have witnessed plenty of leaders come and go that use the last fad in product development as a way to climb up the corporate ladder. Don’t try to sell Scrum or any other approaches to product development as a silver bullet that will solve all the issues. Be real. Plainly state the situation, what you are trying to achieve, and what the underlying principles are. You need to be authentic and really believe what you are saying. 

Explaining why you are doing what you are doing is something you cannot do too often. It always helps, not just within the team but also in convincing the organization to help.

Creating and documenting a team purpose and determining the team principles of working is a good thing to do for any team. It can also be a way to reengage “low performers”. I don’t recommend spending the time to document them right at the beginning for most teams, as long as they are able to more or less function and build something. (The initial priority is to build and establish the team in the organization.) Nevertheless, it’s worth thinking about coming up with a purpose and principles if you are struggling to progress due to unmotivated, underachieving team members.  

Make low performers feel heard

Unfortunately, many leaders don’t really lead. They don’t truly listen and try to help. You can step into that leadership void even if you have no formal authority to do so, even if you are not the line manager. The easiest way to do that is to talk, truly listen, and try to help. You can lead without transactional power. 

Talk to the team members in one to one conversations and actively listen for their individual problems. Also be transparent and plainly state your observation of them not performing. Then, listen for their perspective. Chances are there is a good reason. Chances are that the current processes and tools are not optimal. Chances are the team members are frustrated in one way or another. Chances are also that easy fixes exist. Jointly find and implement these. Help the team members do their work.

Try to find the strengths in these one on one talks. Working on something one is good at motivates, as does working on something a person choses themselves to work on. Thus, listen for excitement. It usually signals a topic of strength. See if there is some work in the team that fits the excitement. You can also directly ask what they would like to do. They might propose something that you didn’t think of yourself but turns out to be valuable. 

The low performers may also be underachieving because of issues outside of work. While you won’t be able to solve those, you can lessen the burden of work. Understand what the issue is and see if there is a way to adjust the work so that suits them.

Maybe she always has to leave early because she needs to take care of a sick relative. Only schedule meetings for the mornings. Maybe he needs to take his child to school every morning. Reschedule the standup for after that. Create an atmosphere where everyone recognizes that things happen outside of work and try to adjust if possible, of course taking all team members into account.

Training and teaching can help, sometimes

Mike Tomlin, the longtime coach of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, once gave an interview about football coaches resisting coaching. He states that they often complain about what the players cannot do, instead of teaching them how to do it. They shy away from teaching even though they exist to coach football. This resonated with me and is applicable to the business context. Many leaders expect employees to already know how to perform or figure it out on their own. They don’t want to teach them. 

As I have covered so far, low performance is mostly a consequence of missing motivation. Nevertheless, there are cases where missing knowledge or skills are the main cause of underachieving. In these cases training, teaching, or other support resources help. Sometimes, a little guidance can go a long way.

If you realize someone is missing skills, teach them if you are able to. If you yourself don’t possess the necessary skills, find someone who does. This is often the way team leaders provide the most value, by making the connection to the expert. Maybe it’s a way for you to learn something as well. Foster an atmosphere of learning. Pairing or shadowing are also great ways for people to learn. Encourage the team members to try it.

If nothing else helps, endure or remove the low performer

Sometimes nothing helps. You have explained why the team exists and what the vision is, multiple times. You have listened and been as accommodating as possible to make work easy. You have taught. Other team members have paired. Nothing changed. The low performer remains exactly that. It happens rarely but does happen. 

In this case, you have two choices. Remove the person from the team or endure him or her. In case it is causing problems with the other team members and the atmosphere suffers, it’s the former. Talk to the line manager that you now longer need this person. In case the person isn’t causing issues you can also assign unimportant side projects. Make sure they are doing things that won’t cause issues if done badly. Give them side projects that really aren’t so important.

This is obviously the least preferable outcome. But sometimes there is just nothing you can do.

The team consists of humans

If you are leading a team, you will undoubtedly come across underachievers at one point or another. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to magically solve this issue for you. You will need to handle the low performer.

The good thing is that low performance is not fixed. It’s most often caused by lack of motivation. Thus, try to rekindle the motivational fire by listening, helping, and providing a purpose. Foster an atmosphere of learning and teaching. That should already go a long way. If nothing else helps endure the low performer or remove him or her from the team. Just remember, you are dealing with humans not implementation robots.