How to recognise and improve workplace poor performers

A workplace is only as good as the people who work to achieve the goals of the business. Everyone has a role to play and most people have a strong work ethic and work towards a common goal. Yet in every workplace there are usually one or more people who don’t pull their weight. It could be a colleague, someone you directly manage or even your manager.

Your best efforts to encourage these poor performers to perform may be in vain, but how do you know when someone is deliberately holding back and could work harder, nimbler or be more results-orientated?

Signs of a poor performer include:

  • Asking someone to perform a task multiple times, without completion.
  • When someone assures you that they will complete the job and asks you not to worry. They take this casual approach even when something is extremely urgent or critical – yet they still don’t complete the task at hand.
  • Their general attitude belies a lack of ownership and responsibility and you can clearly see they are not listening or engaged in their work.
  • Blame, excuses and defensive behaviour ensues when you question why something was not completed.
  • Despite your best optimism and efforts, time has demonstrated that things are not going to change on their own.

If this sounds all too familiar, it is time to stop hoping that things will improve. You now need to take action. This means having potentially difficult conversations, which can be uncomfortable at first, but being able to affect change is the trait of a good leader.

Following these steps below is a solid first step towards dealing with this behaviour. Take a deep breath and:

  1. Talk to them in an empathetic way and tell them what you are experiencing.
  2. Give them a chance to tell you why they are behaving this way: are they having problems at home, health issues or is the job getting on top of them?
  3. While they are talking to you, make sure you are actively listening – maintaining eye contact, not checking your phone or looking away and asking questions to clarify things to show you are listening.
  4. Try and get to the root of the problem and what the issue really is, and then work through potential solutions with the person. You may agree to meet again in 24 hours after you’ve thought about how the issues could be resolved.
  5. Assure the person that you are there to support them and ask them if there is anything you can do to help them during this period.
  6. Together, run through a step-by-step action plan of what needs to be achieved and set deadlines for this. Also set up regular meetings to check in with them on progress. This could be every day if needed, or less frequent. If required, break projects up into individual tasks so that the person doesn’t feel overwhelmed and learns how to manage multiple tasks at once.
  7. Ensure you communicate the consequences if they don’t adhere to the plan, yet give them sufficient time to improve. If it is a behavioural problem, expect that they can address this straight away, while completing tasks or projects could take longer.
  8. When the allotted time comes, sit down for a formal review to assess whether they have managed to transform from a poor performer into a valued part of the team. If they haven’t changed, you need to follow through on the consequences. At this point, do seek support from your own manager to guide you through this.

We are all human and sometimes a job isn’t right for us, we feel out of our depth or personal issues prevent us from achieving what we need to. Ultimately we are all paid to carry out the work that a business needs us to, so non-performance can’t be tolerated forever. Yet it can be addressed in an empathetic and objective way to bring about the desired results.