As a team leader, one of the most frustrating challenges is managing an underperforming team member.

Just as a chain is only as strong as the weakest link, having an underperformer hurts the whole team’s performance and morale.

Not only do they take up a valuable headcount, other team members have to pick up the slack and your attention is diverted to fixing the issue instead of focusing on strategic opportunities.

So, what should you do as the team leader?

You may feel tempted to start with identifying solutions, but that won’t necessarily give you the right solutions. Instead, it’s best to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

You first have to figure out why they’re underperforming

When you’re faced with managing an underperforming team member (or two), here are four reasons your team member could be underperforming and what to do about it:

  1. They lack skills
  2. They lack interest
  3. They don’t have time
  4. They don’t know what ‘good’ looks like

They lack skills

If your team member is underperforming because they don't have the skills or “know-how” to complete their work, they simply need training. This could take the form of mentorship, whether by you or ideally someone else.

For example, if a colleague excels at this particular skill, pair them up together on a project. The colleague gets to develop mentoring skills while your team member learns on the job.

Or it could be more formal training. For example, you could sponsor your team member’s participation in an online or in-person program.

You could even enlist your team member’s help in finding the appropriate training, which gets them involved in investing in their own success.

This leads to the second reason.

They lack interest

If your underperforming team member has the ability to do the work but they’re not interested in it, find out what motivates them.

Are they bored because they can do the task “in their sleep”? Or maybe they come alive when working with people but their tasks involve working with data.

The key is to find their “sweet spot”, which is the overlap between what they’re good at, what they like to do, and what’s valued by the organization. This is where they can perform at their best and contribute to the success of your team and organization.

Doing work we don’t like to do leads to burnout. So find a way to get them operating in their sweet spot as much as possible.

The key is to have conversations with your team members. Ask them for their input and keep an open mind. You may find they’re doing the wrong tasks, and with the right tasks they could be star performers. Or they could be taking on too many tasks.

Which brings me to the third reason.

They don’t have time

If your team member’s performance is suffering, it could be because they don’t have enough time or bandwidth to focus on their core role. By having a conversation with your team member, you can discover what’s causing their lack of time.

For example, they could be underperforming because they have too many things on their plate. In which case, perhaps they need additional resources or people to delegate to. Maybe they need help prioritizing or reallocating their work. Or they may need to learn to say “no”.

Ask them what they need help letting go of in order to raise their performance level.

If they typically perform at a high level, but are suddenly lacking time and energy to perform at their best, there could be something going on in their personal life.

We’ve all had times where our life outside of work needs more attention, whether that’s for ourselves or our loved ones. Without prying, see if you can open a conversation to see if this is the case and offer your support.

Which brings us to the fourth reason.

They don’t know what ‘good’ looks like

Another issue of an underperforming team member could be that they simply don’t know what high performance looks like. This can be the case with a new team member, whether or not they’ve had years of work experience.

In that case, it’s your job to lay out clear expectations. Give them examples of exactly what ‘good’ looks, sounds, and feels like for their role. I call this “good contracting upfront”, which means setting and agreeing expectations. The best time to do this is at the start of working together, and the second best time is now.

You could also partner your team member with a mentor or a colleague to emulate and model themselves after.

As entrepreneur and author Jim Rohn said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Who can you surround your team member with to get the best results?

Don’t jump to conclusions about underperforming team members

It’s easy to make assumptions about why your team members aren't performing at their best. Like “she’s just lazy” or “he simply doesn’t care”. But our assumptions are often incorrect and acting on the wrong information can make the situation worse.

So instead of coming to conclusions on your own, have conversations with your team members, ideally face-to-face. Ask for their input on their own performance. Be curious and listen to their answers. Then make a plan.

When you have underperforming team members, look for the reason behind the behavior

Once you understand the reason for underperformance, it’s a lot easier to figure out how to improve it. The key is to have conversations to discover what’s really going on.

As you have those conversations, remember these four reasons your team could be underperforming:

  • If they lack skills, sponsor them for programs to develop their skills
  • If they’re not interested, help them operate in their “sweet spot”
  • If they don’t have time, give them the support and resources to delegate and focus on what matters most
  • If they don’t know what ‘good’ looks like, clarify expectations and provide mentors

What conversations do you need to have to strengthen your team’s performance?

Leave a comment and let me know.

Recommended Resource

How to Manage a Difficult Team Member

As a manager, you’re no longer the individual contributor who can deliver results on your own. You’re now delivering results through and with other people.

The challenge is you can’t count on having the team of your dreams. At some point in your career, you’re going to have to manage people you find challenging.

Embrace those situations and see them as opportunities to improve your own management and leadership skills. These are growth opportunities and the more experience you have of managing difficult team members, the better a manager you will become… and there will be fewer kinds of people you find difficult to manage.

In this Career Mastery Training, discover the 5 questions to answer to unlock the solutions to managing difficult people and speed your time to success.

Access this training now in Career Mastery