How to Deal With a Worker Who Seems to be Underperforming

Poor Performance

How to Deal With a Worker Who Seems to be Underperforming

In a recent session, a critical question arose: How can a manager deal with an employee who consistently delivers work late or incomplete, even when they provide the initial project estimations themselves? The manager in question appeared to have already tried numerous conventional solutions without success. This common dilemma underscores the importance of effective worker performance management and the need for alternative approaches.

Worker performance is an ever-present concern for managers in today’s fast-paced business world. The pressure to meet targets and deadlines often leads to a focus on productivity metrics. However, this approach can be misleading, as it may not consider an individual’s true capabilities or the broader impact on the team.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” - Albert Einstein

Performance metrics are indeed complex to establish, and once in place, they can be manipulated or cheated, encourage competition over collaboration or even completely lost the main objective of the work done. To address this, managers must shift their focus towards measuring value over productivity and evaluating the contribution and impact on delivery of the entire team. For example, the manager’s performance should be measured indirectly, linked to the team’s achievements, as their primary responsibility is to remove impediments and facilitate teamwork. A similar approach can be done on individuals working in teams.

Even though there are times when someone is not performing as expected, as a manager, we need to find the root cause and find solutions. DeMarco and Lister highlighted that in a healthy work environment, the reasons for poor performance often revolve around a lack of competencelack of confidence, or a lack of affiliation with the project and its goals. Let’s explore them all:

Lack of Competence

“The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay” - Henry Ford

In a rapidly changing world, particularly in technology, employees must have dedicated time to explore, experiment, and acquire new skills. To address this:

  1. Invest in Continuous Learning: Encourage employees to continuously improve their skills by providing access to training and development resources. Create a culture of learning within the organization.
  2. Dedicated (paid) Learning Time: Allocate time for employees to explore new technologies or work on personal development. This can boost their competence and motivation.
  3. Cross-Training: Promote cross-training among team members so that they can learn from each other’s expertise and fill in skill gaps. This will help either junior or senior team members: juniors will learn to learn, and seniors will learn to teach.
  4. Peer-Led Workshops: Encourage team members to organize workshops or knowledge-sharing sessions based on their expertise, fostering competence.
  5. Competency Assessment: Conduct regular assessments to identify skill gaps and provide targeted training and guidance to bridge those gaps.

Lack of Confidence

“As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, First Part

It’s essential to create a safe and supportive work environment where individuals feel comfortable taking initiative. To address this:

  1. Supportive and Safe Work Environment: Implement IT best practices to provide a safe environment to work such as sandbox development environments, peer review processes, control version systems, and feature branches to be tested (automatically and manually) before going to production. These practices reduce the risk of failure and boost team members’ confidence. Make it cheap to fail!
  2. Regular One-on-One Meetings: Engage in regular one-on-one meetings to help individuals visualize their true potential. Offer constructive feedback. Help them to understand their current achievements and focus on new ones. Collaborate with team members to create personalized development plans that focus on building confidence in areas of weakness.
  3. Champion Challenges: Encourage team members to take on challenging projects or tasks to help build their self-assurance and problem-solving skills. Enforce your organization by enforzing individuals.
  4. Public Recognition: Acknowledge and celebrate small and large achievements publicly, which can significantly boost an employee’s confidence. Others will follow!

Lack of Affiliation with Others and/or the Project

Human beings are social creatures, and social connections play a significant role in the workplace, emphasizing the importance of these connections. To address this:

  1. Purposeful Socialization: Avoid cliché team-building activities that lack substance. Instead, focus on creating opportunities for meaningful social interactions, where team members can see the real benefit of collaborating. Make sure that every attendee will benefit of the activiy before enrolling them!
  2. Mentoring and Mentee Programs: Establish clear mentorship programs that promote a win-win situation for both mentors and mentees. This not only fosters affiliation but also helps in knowledge transfer and personal growth.
  3. Celebrate Personal and Professional Growth: Celebrate accomplishments, both small and large, and help them visualize the professional and personal impact of the already solved challenges and the ones to come. Tie individual growth to project achievements.


Effective management of worker performance requires a shift in perspective, moving away from strict productivity metrics to a focus on value and teamwork. By addressing the issues of competence, confidence, and affiliation, managers can create an environment where employees are motivated, capable, and engaged. It’s important to remember that each team member is unique, and their potential can be maximized when given the right support and opportunities.


  1. Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams by Tom DeMarco & Timothy Lister.
  2. 15 Effective Ways to Deal with an Underperforming Employee
  3. 10 Ways to Deal With Underperforming Employees!

See also