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How to Use Company Culture to Help Underperformers Shine

By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager

One of a leader’s thorniest problems is having a team member who’s oblivious about their substandard performance. Unlike disruptive employees who roil the workplace, underperformers are frequently pleasant and unobtrusive. But their behavior still negatively impacts their teammates in subtle ways.

Likeable underperformers frequently go unchecked because people avoid confrontation. Their coworkers will pick up the slack because they figure it’s faster and easier than convincing someone to do things differently. Managers may notice the dynamic but tacitly accept it to keep things moving along. Meanwhile, resentment builds, the team feels more pressure, and eventually, productivity suffers.

Leaders who see the problem compounding may be tempted to simply terminate the underperformer. But firing someone and replacing them is time-consuming and expensive. According to the Society for Human Resources Management’s Human Capital Benchmarking Report:

  • The average cost-per-hire is $4,129
  • The average time it takes to fill a position is 42 days

Add to that the time it takes for a manager to bring a new hire up to speed, and it becomes clear that the process to replace underperformers may be just as much of a drag on an organization as tolerating them.

Getting Underperformers on Track

The process of helping an employee grow and improve also takes time and effort, but the exercise is often highly rewarding to the individual and the organization. When done correctly, the team member feels supported to achieve the footing they need to succeed. And the employer regains a productive worker with a stronger bond to the organization. 

onboarding and culture

The Elephant in the Room

Initiating the conversation about the problem is often the most challenging part of tackling this issue. As Carmen Alston, senior talent management consultant at Right Management, observes in an SHRM article:

“Sometimes employees don’t realize their performance is lacking because managers struggle to be open about the problems they’re seeing. Instead of giving specific feedback about what\’s not working, how it\’s impacting the team and how it needs to change, managers will talk around it.”

Managers may skirt the issue to spare the employee’s feelings or avoid an uncomfortable conversation but doing so merely compounds the problem. Instead, a leader’s first step should be to have an honest but productive discussion with the underperformer. To be effective, they need to view the conversation as a starting point to help the employee, not shame or blame them.

In his first book, Fundamentally Different, CultureWise CEO David J. Friedman calls this “speaking straight” and specifies what this behavior looks like and why it is an integral part of a company’s culture.

“Speaking straight is being direct, clear, and honest in our communication in a way that enables the other person to truly hear us. When we do this, we improve the likelihood of positive movement toward our objectives.”

To have the most impact, managers should initiate a dialogue with an underperforming employee as soon as they recognize a problematic pattern in their work. If the employee is clueless that their output is subpar, the faster the issue is brought to their attention, the more quickly they can work on it.

Another benefit to promptly addressing the situation is getting information from the employee before taking action. For example, managers may learn that the staff member’s lackluster effort stems from a lack of training, discomfort with a new role or responsibilities, the inability to access resources, or changes in their personal lives.

Gathering input from the employee helps the manager understand the best way to address the problem early before it has time to fester.

Leveraging Company Culture to Turn the Problem Around

A strong and supportive company culture is the ideal foundation for managers to help struggling employees improve. The following behaviors are embedded in a healthy culture and are powerful tools for leaders dealing with underperforming team members.

Getting clear on expectations

Often people don’t deliver as expected because they aren’t operating under the same set of assumptions. In some cases, employees think making an effort is adequate–even if they fail to deliver results that their managers are counting on.

Managers can help their people understand their responsibilities by clarifying expectations. This effort might involve getting down to granular detail about the steps necessary to achieve intended goals. While some people need deeper explanations to get clear on expectations, taking the time to set them straight may be all that’s required to turn their performance around.

Often people don’t act because they are afraid they’ll look inept if they inquire about how to do something. The manager should also make the employee feel comfortable to ask questions when they’re unsure of how or when something should be executed. Employees need to know that they work in an environment where inquiries about expectations are encouraged.

workplace accountability checklist

Encouraging Accountability

Accountability has a negative connotation in some workplaces because it’s conflated with blame. But when it’s established as a positive lynchpin of a healthy culture, people understand that being accountable is a means to succeed.

Managers can encourage employees to do their best work by developing metrics to hold them accountable for their performance. For example, they might create a list of specific behaviors that need to be improved or implemented to achieve a higher standard of work, such as:

  • Paying attention to details
  • Being more responsive
  • Following through
  • Being proactive
  • Staying organized

The manager might suggest applying these behaviors to specific goals and timelines and then schedule times to meet with the employee to assess if they’re hitting these targets.

Managers can also help employees take charge of their performance by teaching them how to hold themselves accountable. A powerful way to assist them in developing a sense of ownership of their work is to remind them of the importance of their role in the organization.

By explaining the value, purpose, and effect of the employee’s job duties, they help them develop a sense of pride in the quality of their output every day.

Providing Support

Offering guidance to get an underperforming employee on track isn’t a one-and-done affair. Instead, it requires an ongoing effort for the transformation to take hold. To help individuals flourish, managers should:

  • Stay in communication. Set up regular one-on-ones with the employee to review progress, understand their challenges, make suggestions, and reinforce their determination to succeed. For this high-quality feedback to sink in, it can’t be relegated to an annual performance review.

  • Lead by example. Be transparent about how they approach their work and what it takes to perform at a high level. Let the employee also see how they respond to problems and making mistakes. Allowing them to see someone they admire overcome shortcomings sets a powerful example.

  • Celebrate success. Just as the manager took time to spell out the details of the employee’s underperformance, they should also provide meaningful acknowledgment to reward improvement. By explaining how their improved efforts positively influenced outcomes, the employee will be motivated to continue to do better work.

  • Provide training. Sometimes an employee who has been handed extra responsibility or taken on a new role finds themselves in over their head. If an honest conversation with the staff member reveals this predicament, the next step is discussing various formal training options or assigning a mentor to guide them.

The manager should also use every opportunity to leverage the company culture to help the employee increase the soft skills that significantly contribute to better work outcomes. These include:

  • Teamwork
  • Problem-solving
  • Time management
  • Critical thinking
  • Adaptability
  • Resourcefulness

  • Show empathy. Sometimes employees overwhelmed by life and work responsibilities are unaware of the impact of stress on their job. Since the onset of the pandemic, stress-related decline in performance has been more prevalent than ever before. In fact, Harvard Business Review reports that mental health challenges are now the norm among employees across all organizational levels.

    Managers can help by providing resources, flexibility options, and showing that they care about employees’ wellbeing. Making staff members feel like they’re part of the work-family will go a long way towards helping them do their best.

Providing the assistance workers need to help them thrive is one of a manager’s most important responsibilities. Once underperforming employees show improvement, managers can remain tuned in but take a step back and entrust them with staying the course.

Deaf Ears

Most employees flourish under supportive leadership, and underperformers who’ve been given the tools to do better often have a high chance of moving forward with rewarding careers. But there are always exceptions.

Some people refuse to acknowledge that they aren’t pulling their weight no matter how well their managers explain why their behavior is detrimental to the organization. Instead, they view things through a different lens and become defensive and even hostile about the notion that they need to improve.

As management consultant and leadership coach Liz Kislik writes in the Harvard Business Review, these are people who have fallen victim to the Dunning-Krueger effect—a cognitive bias that prevents people from seeing how badly they’re performing and that they need help.

Trying to turn someone around with this mindset is exhausting and usually pointless. So when an underperformer responds to a leader by arguing about the issue and resists attempts to help them improve, it’s time to let them go.

David Friedman calls firing someone because they can’t conform to the standards and culture of an organization “the ultimate accountability.” When leaders take this final step with an underperformer, they demonstrate three things:

  • Management will make every effort to help and support struggling team members
  • An employee’s unwillingness or inability to improve won’t be tolerated
  • The culture of the work environment is a high priority for leadership

A Team-strengthening Culture

There are multiple ways that a supportive, high-performing culture helps leaders build employees’ abilities and strengthen their team. But to meet these goals, leaders must be very intentional about the culture they want in their organization.

In his decades as a CEO, David Friedman developed a process to create dynamic company culture that empowers employees to do their best work. He created CultureWise, an online system to operationalize culture, to make that method available to leaders who want to develop and sustain a great culture for their team.

Learn more about Friedman’s approach with this free, two-chapter download of his second book, Culture by Design. And explore the CultureWise website to learn why companies across North America are succeeding at a higher level by using this system.

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