“What’s the Problem?” – 5 Questions to ask an Underperforming Employee

“What’s the Problem?” – 5 Questions to ask an Underperforming Employee

One of the most challenging tasks for any manager is how to handle employee underperformance.  This could be a general team issue where the whole group seems to be demotivated and underperforming.  More likely, however, the issue will relate to one or maybe two individuals in particular.  

Most managers would prefer not to have to sit down and have what can potentially be a difficult and even emotional conversation.  In this vein, the usual starting point is to try and rationalise the individual’s behaviour, and work out why they are underperforming.  



You may look for external reasons, i.e. those factors over which you (and the individual) have limited control:

“The client Sarah is dealing with is known to be difficult.”

“The deadline they gave Harry was just unreasonable”

These reasons can be reassuring as they are usually short-term, and don’t necessarily reflect on the person’s general competence or day to day way of working.  

Or, you may wonder if the reason for underperformance is ‘internal’ and to do with the individual themselves: 

“John is always in too much of a hurry.  He rushes and makes mistakes.”

“Rachel struggles to say what she means and this causes confusion.”

Or, you may (quietly!) wonder if the problem is a little closer to home.  As a manger, you yourself set the tone for your team and if you are, for e.g. arriving late, neglecting deadlines, or just generally under-performing yourself, then you cannot really expect your staff to do any different!  The good news, however, is that this one is usually easy to fix and often just a simple case of making a conscious effort to ‘be the change you want to see’.

If, however, the issue is more to do with your style of management, then that can be a little more challenging and we will look more closely at this below. 

The majority of team and staff issues will probably be a mixture of both internal and external factors.  Most people have aspects of their job which they do not like and prefer to either rush to get the thing over with, or put off completely.  We all have different strengths and weaknesses; some of us are great organisers and some of us are dreadful at prioritising. In an ideal world every person’s job would play only to their strengths.  Unfortunately, this is not often the case and most of us will have to deal with things that we may dislike, or even absolutely loathe.  

The team themselves may find it challenging to work together.  Again, in an ideal world, all teams would be made up of colleagues who bond well together and enjoy each other’s company.  In reality, people are more complicated, and some people will find it easier to work with colleagues, than others. Some people may just hate working as a team even when they actually quite like their colleagues on an individual level!  

The bottom line is that, as a manager, if a colleague’s performance has got to the stage where you have identified a specific internal or external factor which is affecting their performance, then you probably do need to speak to them.  So pull up a chair, and prepare yourself. These coaching style questions may help: 

How have you been feeling about your own performance lately? 

What opportunities can you see for us to help you improve or develop?

This is a good starting point for any difficult discussion.  It immediately allies any fears the person might have that you are going to seek to have them redeployed, and lets them know that you want them to continue in the role.  The chances are that they themselves will welcome the chance to talk. They will almost certainly know their job better than you and can usually identify their own areas of weakness.  You could discuss these – remembering to be supportive and not overly-critical with the weaknesses – and together come up with a plan on how they can develop and improve, with a date for review.  

Is your role fully utilising your skills and experience?  Where do you think there is a gap or a challenge?

This question could be aimed at someone who is either having a specific challenge with an aspect of their role or, maybe someone who has been in the role for some time and seems to be losing interest.  

A colleague who has been doing the same role for a while may just be bored, and perhaps making mistakes as a consequence of that, and in need of a new challenge.  Someone who is struggling with one aspect may need a learning or training course, or, if the issue is a real challenge – for example. if the colleague feels they struggle with nerves or anxiety and each person is expected to stand up and talk in team meetings, then perhaps this could be reviewed?  The key is to get to what the issue actually is and decide whether it is possible to work with it, or whether it needs to be reviewed or changed completely.  

Is it clear what’s required for this role?

This question is useful if someone has recently taken on a new role, started working for a new manager, or been promoted.  They may not fully realise what is expected of them. It is a good introduction into discussing how they are finding the new situation, any challenges or things they had not expected, and looking at any areas for development.   

It is helpful for the colleague to see that their manager takes an interest, and they may simply need reassurance or an opportunity to discuss how things have changed.  

Is the level of quality that’s required for this work clear?  How best can I clarify the level of quality that’s expected?

This is a simple question for when someone’s work is below par.  There could be any number of reasons for this. As above, they may simply be bored, or if they have just been promoted or are working with a new team, then they may not realise what is expected.  

Sometimes the problem may be unrelated to work.  Perhaps the individual is going through a challenging time at home?   

This is an opportunity to reassure your team member that you want to work with them, and support them.  You could clarify the role or job spec if necessary and use this as a lead in, if appropriate, to suggesting new responsibilities, training, or maybe even a few days away from the role?  

In all circumstances, at this stage, it is important to reiterate that you want to support them and help them get over this bump. 

Do you find my management style challenging? Does my tone come off the wrong way? Do you feel that I micromanage you/do not give you enough support?

By the time you sit down to ask this question, you will usually have a good idea if the issue is a simple personality clash between you and your team member.  These are never easy to deal with, particularly as a manager when (you are being told that) you yourself are the issue!  

Often the roots are in simple misunderstandings about what is expected from both parties, or issues with communication and communication styles.   

It is important that these sorts of issues are dealt with early and, where possible, informally.  In a bigger company it can be tempting to involve HR or a third party. CIPD studies, however, suggest that smaller companies have a much better track record with dealing with managerial conflict simply because they do it quickly and only with the individuals involved.  

The best advice for these sorts of discussions is for the manager to actively listen.  It can be tempting to jump in defensively, when you hear, “you never listen to me properly!” but if you try and stay calm, let the individual speak, and make notes (with their permission) you really do stand a better chance of resolving the matter – and in this instance demonstrating that you are actually listening to them!

Sometimes change can act as a catalyst for staff upset, particularly when a new manager takes over an existing team.  People are naturally suspicious and may have got used to doing things in a certain way which is now about to be changed. 

For the manger involved, it can sometimes be worth getting a the view of a neutral third party, if and where possible, and asking them to honestly comment on the situation.  Maybe the team member is right – maybe you do ‘never listen’!

Try and remain level-headed and pragmatic with these discussions, and make sure they are followed up in writing and with a clear review date.  

What are your biggest challenges as a manager?  How do you deal with difficult conversations? Let me know! 


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