Leaders who invest their time in the highest performers in their team will realise a greater return on investment, than those who focus on trying to improve the results of the lowest performers in their team. But what should we do about low-performing employees? Can they change? The simple answer is yes, but only if they are willing.

Managing low performers

An important lesson for leaders to learn is to not let the ‘squeaky wheel’ distract them from achieving results.

Too often, managers shy away from performance-managing low performers because they either fear conflict or don’t feel they have the capability and knowledge to address the situation.

Those who are disengaged tend to bring everyone down. The popular metaphor is that not only do they stop rowing the boat but they start trying to sink it via their poor behaviours and attitudes.

This is why leadership training is essential for success. Providing leaders with the skills they require to address poor performance, and encouraging them to work in partnership with HR to either assist the employee to improve or exit the business is essential to long-term success.

3 points to consider with low-performing employees

  1. Is the employee motivated to do the job?

Employee motivation is intrinsic and hard to change. This should first be identified in the recruitment process. Different people are motivated by different things at different stages of their life.

Questions to ask low performers include:

  • Why do you work here?
  • Why do you do the work you do?
  • Why do you feel unable to meet your KPIs?
  • What do you enjoy about your job?
  • What do you like least about your job?
  • What are your career goals?
  • Do you see an opportunity to achieve your goals within our company?

A motivated employee will demonstrate an alignment between what they enjoy, and their goals with the inherent requirements of the job, and the career opportunities available.

If there isn’t alignment, the employee would likely be better off finding a new role elsewhere.

  1. Does the employee have the skills and background to do the job?

If performance issues are caused by poor habits, or by skills which can be learned–and the employee has the motivation to learn these new skills and habits–it’s likely the low performer can change.

Questions to ask low performers include:

  • When it comes to your role what are your strengths?
  • When it comes to your role what are your areas for development?
  • Do you feel you have the resources to achieve what’s required in your role?
  • Do you require further training to be successful in your role?
  • If we provide you with the training and resources you’ve identified, do you believe this will improve your performance?
  • Why do you feel that you’re not meeting expectations?

These questions can help leaders put a plan in place to improve on capability and results as a step-by-step process requiring commitment of both employee and the leader. Regular check-ins are essential to ensure the employee delivers on promises.

  1. Does the employee have the personal characteristics to fit in with your team and work with your customers?

Einstein famously said: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Our personal characteristics are the traits that guide how we work, and how we interact with others. Personal characteristics are innate and slow to change unless there has been a significant change or trauma in an individual’s life.

Optimal productivity is best achieved when the right person is in the right job. That is, a role that matches their skills challenges them and includes tasks they enjoy. Some employees are working for the right company; in the wrong role, and a simple change in role can improve performance.

Most leaders don’t act quickly enough to move low performers up or out.

Are your leaders asking the right questions to help low-performing employees change?