How The Best Leaders Support Underperforming Employees

How The Best Leaders Support Underperforming Employees

John Eades 05/05/2023
How The Best Leaders Support Underperforming Employees

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out some people perform better than others.

Not only do high-performing professionals produce better business outcomes, but they tend to be more engaged and help their team or organization be successful. 

Unfortunately, most professionals aren't reaching their full potential. Research of over 14,500 employees found approximately 85% were not working at 100% of their potential. If that weren't bad enough, 16% said they were using less than 50% of their potential. 

As scary as these statistics are, feelings of doubt, worry, emptiness, and hopelessness set in when we underperform for long periods. We start to believe we aren't good enough or worthy enough of success, which couldn't be further from the truth.  

When people underperform for long periods, they start to believe they aren't worthy of success, which couldn't be further from the truth. 

Many possible factors can cause us to underperform. These are just a few: 

  • Lack of talent

  • Bad coaching or being uncoachable

  • Limited work ethic or self-discipline

  • Scarce resources

  • Bad or unfortunate luck 

Since some of these factors are outside of our control, it's important to lean into the one thing that can help any underperforming team member. A leader who cares and embraces the responsibility of helping other people reach their full potential.

Often, the only thing holding someone back from reaching their full potential is a leader who cares about them. 

If you are leading an underperforming team member or want to take your current team to higher performance levels, here's what you can do.

1. Reinvest in the Relationship

People work harder and push themselves to new performance levels when there is a bond of mutual trust with their boss.

Researchers at the University of Berkley studied what motivates productivity in professionals. When people felt recognized for the work they did, they were 23% more effective and productive. But what's even more astonishing is that when people felt valued and cared for, their productivity and effectiveness experienced a 43% increase. Make time for one-on-one meetings with team members to find out what's important to them, what goals they want to achieve, and what current challenges they are facing in their life.  

2. Clarify The Truth

One of the most significant mistakes leaders make is providing a lack of clarity around how their team members are currently performing. If I have learned anything from coaching managers and executives over the last ten years it's this: great leadership clarifies.

Clarifying performance doesn't mean solely focusing on the outcomes, a person or team achieves. Instead, the best leaders focus on the leading performance indicators instead of lagging indicators. They observe and coach things like effort, attitude, and skill development because they know these are the things that ultimately produce consistent outcomes. 

3. Elevate the Standards

Anytime performance isn't where you need or want it; it's time to elevate the standard. A standard is simply defining what good looks like. In Building the Best, I wrote;

Good leaders define what good looks like; Great leaders define what great looks like.  

4. Accelerate with Accountability

Many words make people uncomfortable; "accountability" is one of those words. Accountability is simply the obligation of an individual or organization to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them, and to disclose the results in a transparent manner.

My mentor always told me, "What you tolerate, you encourage." It is your obligation to hold yourself and others accountable to the standards. Otherwise, you're encouraging sub-standard behavior. To do this effectively, have the courage and a proven model to have direct dialogues with your people when standards aren't met. 

5. Give Ample Time 

One of the fastest ways to improve performance isn't by addition but by reduction. If you have given ample time, effort, and coaching to help improve a team member's performance and nothing seems to change, it's time to move on.  

Do your best to find a different situation, role, or leader to help support their future development. The hard truth is that no leader is the perfect fit for everyone, which is ok.  


While there is no perfect or full-proof strategy to turn around an underperforming team member, I hope these ideas help you. 

There is nothing easy about helping turn around an underperforming team member. However, helping someone meet their full potential is a worthwhile endeavor. The benefits to their life and career are unquantifiable. 

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John Eades

Leadership Expert

John is the CEO of LearnLoft, author of, F.M.L. Standing Out & Being a Leader and host of the 'Follow My Lead' Podcast. He writes or has been featured on, LinkedIn Pulse,,, CNBC Money, and more. John completed his education at the University of Maryland College. 

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