A cartoon image of a man in a suit pushing a boulder up a hill while another man stands higher up the hill staring at him. Representing a struggling employee.
Image: © Knut/Stock.adobe.com

How to manage an employee who is struggling

22 Mar 2022

Managers have a responsibility to the employees they lead. But what should they do if one of their employees seems to be underperforming?

While there is plenty of general career advice out there for developing soft skills such as communication and creativity, managers have a whole other set of skills that they need to contend with.

As well as being competent in their own area, be it engineering, software development, sales or design, they also have to be able to lead with confidence, work with a diverse team and head up projects.

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When the team is working productively and happily, the manager’s job is a whole lot of easier. But occasionally, one of their employees will struggle or even underperform in one area or another.

This is where managers must really step up and exercise their skills in managing their team, supporting them and leading them to success. So what should a manager do when they notice an employee may be falling behind?

Think about the specifics

Before you rush to schedule a meeting with the employee in question, it’s important to assess and identify where exactly the apparent weak spots are. Is there a specific task they seem to be struggling with? Is time management an issue? Are mistakes cropping up in their work and, if so, what kind of mistakes?

Once you’ve pinpointed the exact area, you can start to get an idea of what the causes might be, such as too much work or not enough training.

You should never jump to conclusions about what might be going on, but it’s important to at least consider possible reasons other than the employee simply isn’t good at something.

Arrange a meeting

Once you’ve gotten a clearer picture of their performance in your own head and prepared for the possible reasons behind an issue, you can book a meeting to check in on the person.

Assuming this is the first time you’ve had to have a conversation like this with the employee, keep it informal, like a check-in as opposed to a disciplinary meeting. Be mindful that there could be extenuating circumstances at play.

Rather than tell them what you’ve observed, start with asking them how they feel they’re getting on. Ask open-ended questions about how they feel about their workload, deadlines, the work itself and if there are any areas they’re struggling with.

Often, they will raise similar issues to the ones you already have in mind, which will make it easier to discuss. At this point, you can also mention any struggles they have not identified as possible areas to work on.

Create a plan together

Once the issues have been discussed and you have a better idea as to the reasons behind them, you can start making a plan. The key is to do this in collaboration with the employee so that they’re on board and you have a full understanding of what works for them.

Together you can discuss the support they might need to put them on the right road, whether that’s help with managing their time better, addressing an overwhelming workload or some tips or additional training on a certain aspect of the job.

Use your coaching mindset to help guide them in coming up with their own suggestions on how to improve certain areas. This will empower them and help build their confidence to grow and address their own challenges in future.

Check in regularly

When a plan is in place with some actionable areas for improvement, make sure you monitor the progress the employee is making and make a plan to check back in at regular intervals to ensure they are comfortable with how they’re developing.

Give positive feedback during these meetings and be sure to acknowledge their efforts. Again, make the meetings about them by asking them how they feel about their progress and if there are any areas that they’re still unsure of.

Beware of micromanaging

While regular check-ins and feedback sessions are important, it’s also vital that this doesn’t tip over to micromanagement.

Managers can sometimes have a knee-jerk reaction to underperformance where they end up monitoring that employee more closely to see where they’re tripping up. However, not only does this not help the employee perform better, but it can also have the opposite effect.

The employee may lose confidence in their abilities if they feel like they’re constantly being watched and, in much the same way that we all lose the ability to type when someone is looking over our shoulder, the employee may actually make more mistakes.

Monitor from a distance and look for evidence of improvements rather than evidence of mistakes.

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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