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How to handle underperforming team members

Mastering the art of turning team challenges into triumphs by understanding the root causes of underperformance, engaging in proactive problem-solving, and creating a collaborative atmosphere.
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Managing a team effectively demands recognizing and addressing underperformance swiftly and constructively. Underperforming team members can impact the entire team’s morale, productivity, and success. As a team leader, you are responsible for guiding and supporting these individuals toward improvement.

The following guide presents a comprehensive approach to managing underperformance, combining empathy with clear, action-oriented strategies.

Identifying underperformance

Underperformance isn’t always as apparent as missed deadlines or poor-quality work. It can manifest subtly, like reduced engagement, reluctance to contribute in meetings or resistance to feedback. Recognize these signs early.

Pay attention to changes in behavior, work patterns, and team interactions. For instance, if a usually punctual member starts arriving late or missing deadlines, it may signal an issue that needs addressing.

Before approaching the individual, gather facts. Look at their performance data, feedback from colleagues, and any self-reported issues they might have shared. It’s crucial to differentiate between a temporary slump and a persistent problem.

Consider external factors like personal issues or team dynamics that might affect their performance.

Addressing underperformance

Approach the conversation with a blend of professionalism and empathy. Start by expressing concern and willingness to support. For example, you might say, “I’ve noticed some changes in your recent work, and I’m here to help you get back on track.”.

Ensure the setting is private and conducive to open discussion. Listen to their perspective and validate their feelings while clearly stating the observed performance issues.

After understanding their viewpoint, clarify expectations. Be specific about where their performance is lacking and what is expected. Set SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals to guide improvement.

For instance, if the issue is about missing deadlines, a SMART goal could be, “Complete the upcoming project three days before the deadline.”

Creating an improvement plan

Involve the team member in creating an improvement plan. This fosters ownership and motivation. Discuss and agree on realistic steps they can take to meet the set goals. Offer resources like training or mentorship if needed. For example, if the problem is related to skill gaps, suggest relevant courses or pair them with a more experienced team member for guidance.

Schedule regular one-on-one meetings to monitor progress. These check-ins provide opportunities to give and receive feedback, adjust the improvement plan as needed, and celebrate small victories. Consistent support and recognition of progress, even minor, can significantly boost morale and performance.

Providing support and resources

Offer training opportunities tailored to their needs. This could include workshops, online courses, or shadowing another team member. For instance, if they struggle with time management, recommend a time management workshop or share techniques that have worked for you or others in the team.

Recognize that underperformance can be linked to personal or emotional challenges. Create an environment where team members feel comfortable sharing such issues.

Provide access to employee assistance programs or professional counseling if available.

Fostering a supportive team environment

Promote a team culture where members feel comfortable seeking help from each other. Encourage collaborative projects or peer mentoring. This supports the underperforming member and builds a stronger, more cohesive team.

Sometimes, underperformance is a symptom of broader team issues. Regularly assess the team’s dynamics and address any conflicts or communication barriers. Organize team-building activities to strengthen relationships and improve communication.

Evaluating progress and making decisions

Regularly review the team member’s progress against the set goals. Acknowledge improvements and discuss any ongoing challenges. Be honest but constructive in your feedback. If there’s a significant improvement, recognize their efforts publicly to boost their confidence.

You may need to make tough decisions if there’s no improvement despite all efforts. This could range from changing their role to considering their exit from the team. Ensure such decisions are fair, well-documented, and aligned with organizational policies.


Managing underperformance is a challenging but essential aspect of leadership. It requires a balanced approach of empathy, clear communication, and decisive action.

You can guide your team members toward improvement and success by identifying underperformance early, setting clear expectations, providing support, and fostering a positive team environment. Remember, effective leadership transforms challenges into growth opportunities for the individual and the team.

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