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How to Motivate Underperforming Employees


In a perfect world, all employees would perform at a high level at all times. Yet, our world isn’t perfect. That’s not our reality. Every business owner will be faced with the challenge of how to motivate an underperforming employee.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to deal with this problem. Even after seeing the signs of an underperforming employee, some leaders will choose to ignore this issue. Behaving as if it does not exist. Others will confront the issue in a way that causes more problems. Here are some tips for how to motivate an underperforming employee in the best way possible.


1. Identify the Cause for the Lack of Motivation

Before doing anything, check in with yourself. Reflect on the situation. Why do you consider this employee an underperformer? Is this person the only one, or are there others who are underperforming? What do you believe are the factors that may be leading to the underperformance? Be candid – these are your private thoughts alone. No one else will know. 

Is there any training, mentoring, or other resources the employee has not been given that could have prevented this situation in the first place? Checking in with yourself is important to ensure that you’re being fair to your staff.

If you find that you’ve had many employees who are underperforming, you may want to consider if this is part of a bigger pattern. Do you need to look broader and find out why that is? You may want to look at increasing employee loyalty to get better results in the long run.

Also, keep in mind that sometimes great performers become unmotivated. Sometimes, you can see it coming. Other times, not so much. Have you been blindsided by a once-great performer sliding into an underperforming status? This might happen right before they quit. If you suspect this might be the situation, think about what might have made an exceptional employee unhappy. These folks may not speak up and may just head out the door instead.


2. Be Understanding

Once you’ve confirmed with yourself alone that you’re not being unfair in your observations, have a conversation with the employee. During this conversation, it is important that you are understanding toward the employee. This meeting should be in a private location. Choose a neutral location if possible – not their workstation and not your office. The goal of this conversation is to open up communication to ultimately improve their performance.

If you have any positive feedback, you may want to share this at the beginning of the conversation. This might help put the employee at ease. An employee might think “all my boss sees is my mistakes.” However, if you give positive feedback first, that can lay the groundwork for a more relaxed dialogue, which is what you need to achieve progress.


3. Be Direct About Their Performance

In order to have a productive dialogue, you need to give your employee the facts. Provide statements that can’t be argued, not just opinions or hearsay. 

Avoid vague statements that are open to interpretation such as, “You have a bad attitude” or “Your job performance is bad.” While this may be true, statements like that aren’t as direct or helpful such as a clear statement like, “You roll your eyes at customers often, and they’ve started to complain,” or “Three times this week, people have sent their food back because it wasn’t what they ordered.” Be clear about what’s wrong, and what needs to change.


4. Find out What Motivates Them

One of the first things to do to motivate an underperforming employee is to find out what motivates them. Not everyone is motivated by money or acknowledgment. And, motivations change. A person may have joined your company with one motivation but those motivations may have shifted over time.

To find out if this may be the case with your underperforming employees, hold one-on-one meetings with each employee. Ask them directly what motivates them in their work. Listen actively and take notes. From there, begin to test out different strategies. Watch how employees respond to different types of incentives and rewards, and take note of what seems to motivate them the most.

You can also send out surveys to employees to get an idea of what motivates them. Use the results to guide your management strategies. You will also want to look at the employee’s performance. Has production increased or decreased after implementation? See if there is any correlation between their motivation and their work output.

Getting to know the underperforming employee will allow you to understand them better. This understanding will help you create an environment that may spark their motivation. 


5. Create an Action Plan

Your employee’s receptiveness to feedback will determine what’s next: an action plan. A conversation may result in an employee admitting that they’re struggling with critical elements of the job. If they’re open to improvement, you may want to offer additional training, coaching, or mentoring. In this case, there’s potential to turn the situation around if the right actions are taken.

Sometimes, job performance is simply a matter of will: an employee may have been neglectful. Now that the issue has been called out, they will pay attention, because they know their job is on the line. They need no additional training, they just need to be careful, and you will need to observe their performance.

Regardless of the scenario, it’s important to create an action plan for what the next steps will be. And, following your conversation with your employee, don’t forget to document your conversation, and tell the employee what you expect from them.


6. Create Incentives

Monetary incentives, such as bonuses or commission-based pay, can be used to motivate employees to work harder and achieve specific goals. However, with an underperforming employee, these incentives may be counterproductive. Offering special monetary incentives to only the underperforming employees may be an issue for your high-performing staff members. It is not a good idea to offer special incentives for your lower-performing employees without also offering incentives to the rest of the team.

Non-monetary incentives, such as recognition and praise, can be used to acknowledge and appreciate an employee’s hard work and contributions. Employee development opportunities can also help motivate some employees. Incentives such as training and professional development programs can be used to motivate employees by providing them with the tools and resources they need to grow and advance in their careers.

It’s important to note that different incentives may be more effective for different employees and teams. So, it’s important to consider each employee’s individual needs and preferences when creating incentives.


7. Coach and Follow Up

Coaching an underperforming employee can be challenging. However, it is an important part of keeping an underperforming employee motivated. To coach an underperforming employee, first, schedule regular follow-up meetings with the employee(s). Be specific about the areas where they are underperforming and provide concrete examples. Then, ask the employee for their perspective on the situation and listen actively.

Provide regular feedback and support to the employee. Hold them accountable for meeting the goals. It’s important to keep the conversation positive and focus on the employee’s strengths and how they can apply them to improve their performance.


8. Make Sure to Offer Positive Feedback

 Show genuine appreciation and make the employee feel valued. The feedback you give during your follow-ups, should be positive and encouraging. You should also tailor the feedback to the individual employee and their specific strengths and contributions.

Be sure that the feedback given is actionable and helps the employee grow, not just praise. Just praising employees may give a sense of contentment that may inhibit their desire to grow. The positive feedback that does not foster growth may cause some employees to stagnate.

 And finally, share positive feedback with other team members. In a team meeting or in public in front of their peers, to show the employee that their work is appreciated by the whole team. Make sure that the underperforming employee is comfortable with the public acknowledgment prior.


Should You Terminate An Employee?

Sometimes, an employee’s skills simply aren’t a good match for the job. While they may have a great attitude and a willingness to improve, it will never be a good fit. For example, a restaurant employee hired to work in the kitchen who is constantly making terrible food cannot continue to work in the kitchen. However, moving the employee into a role as a server or host could be a possibility if their skills are a match for this position. Reassigning employees can be a good option when they’re a good fit for the company but not a good fit for their role.

In other situations, an employee simply refuses to have a good attitude to succeed in any position. They show no improvement over time, or they may even admit that they have no desire to improve. In these cases, you decide – perhaps even mutually – to part ways with the employee. 


Having a high-performing staff is vital to any business. Recognizing that an employee is underperforming is important, but taking action is essential. Motivation is just one way to deal with underperforming employees. Use motivation as a tool in your toolbox that can help get your employees back on track.

Opening the lines of communication is a must in order to improve performance. Underperforming employees can be coached to success or gracefully encouraged to move on to more suitable opportunities.

Erin Shelby on TwitterErin Shelby on Wordpress
Erin Shelby
Team Writer: Erin Shelby is a writer and blogger based in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter @ByErinShelby

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Team Writer: Erin Shelby is a writer and blogger based in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter @ByErinShelby

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