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10 Steps to Addressing Underperformance

A few days ago I was having dinner with a Superintendent when he presented me with the following question, “How do you address underperformance, especially when you expect your staff and team to perform at a high level?  Right now I am struggling with some folks who just refuse to get better.”  It was a fair question and one that I often get when I am providing training or coaching school leaders. In fact, if I am being completely candid, I would argue that this dilemma has reached almost epidemic proportions in schools and business organizations across the board.

Underperformance is an issue, but failing to address underperformance is an even bigger issue.

And it may not be going away anytime soon.

I believe one reason why underperformance continues to go unchallenged is because leaders lack the necessary skills on how to deal with employees who are not performing at the standard expected.  You might be asking yourself how this is possible?  Well for one, most employees who are currently in leadership roles never received the proper training on how to address poor performance by employees. Think about it. The only in-service most of us ever received on this topic was the “trial and error” training. Ask any employee in a leadership role what one of the biggest and most frustrating challenges they face in supervising others and I would bet that they would rank their employees not performing at the standard expected somewhere near the top. In other words, an inability to do quality work in a quality manner. I am certain that there would be those who would rank other concerns higher, such as poor attendance, not able to get along with co-workers, dishonesty, such as lying and or stealing, and finally, in the worst cases, a complete refusal for whatever reason to do the job that is expected or required of them. I would argue that these reasons are actually much easier to address because they often violate school or business policies or in some cases, the employee code of conduct, giving the supervisor or employer a much easier path in addressing the behavior or even termination when necessary. However, I am referring to the employee, whether it be a teacher, an administrator, a secretary, a school bus driver, or any person in any organization for that matter who others in the organization have learned are demonstrating on a consistent basis that they simply cannot perform the duties required at a high level. Complicating matters is many times these individuals are “really nice” people, making it even more difficult for leaders to address legitimate concerns regarding underperformance, because well, they’re nice. Moreover, other workers are allowed to continue to do an “average” job, all while making everyone else around them miserable through their negative comments and/or behavior, thus causing others to avoid interacting with them whenever possible and leading to a work environment that results in our best people keeping their heads down and staying in their lane. Our people deserve better and we should expect better.

“Do the best you can until you know better.

Then when you know better, do better.” – Maya Angelou

So what can be done when it comes to dealing with the employee who is underperforming? First, we must be willing to have the conversation. Sounds simple doesn’t it? But often we fail to even take this first step. Second, before we engage any employee about their performance we must prepare ourselves mentally with a positive mindset that truly believes that the individual wants to and is willing to raise the bar regarding their work performance regardless of past history. In other words, we begin with a clear and positive mind and believe that somewhere in their journey they simply lost their way and began to stay in their lane rather than excel in their work. But why? What happened? Consider doing the following when you find yourself dealing with employees who need reminded why we need them bringing their best for our students, colleagues, and quite frankly, for themselves and for the success of the school or organization.

  1. Share Your Concern with the Employee. People can’t fix what they don’t know. Every employee deserves and an opportunity to respond to concerns about the quality of their work. Approach the conversation in a genuine, caring and empathetic manner. People respond best when they believe you truly care about them as people first so…
  2. Ask the employee if they agree with your summation. Don’t make assumptions about why you believe they are not meeting expectations. We cannot assume that they are even aware of yours or others’ concerns. Often times people are unaware that their performance has fallen below standard. Other times they are but they cannot even tell you how they ended up there. Therefore…
  3. Give the employee an opportunity and time to respond to your concerns. In some instances, the person may apologize and promise to improve their performance immediately. Others may appear to be caught off guard and respond in a defensive manner. In such cases, be fair to the employee by giving them time to process what you just shared and reschedule another time to continue the conversation. Then…
  4. Provide Specific Ways to Improve. This is most helpful to the employee who wants to improve the quality of their work, but may be lacking the necessary skills to do so. It’s not enough to just tell them they need to get better…
  5. Model the Level of Performance You Expect. Once we have told the employee what they need to do to raise their level of performance, we have to show them what excellence looks like. We need to provide a model so they can see it before we can expect them to replicate it. Next…
  6. Provide ongoing coaching. It is imperative that we invest in our employees by providing ongoing coaching in order for them to be inspired to raise their performance level. This can be done by a colleague, instructional coach, administrator or even by an outside resource. However, if you want to maintain the gains you make, then you must be sure to…
  7. Offer ongoing support, resources, and encouragement. Don’t assume just because you follow the above steps that they will be able to maintain their new status. All of us are prone to falling back to average or below average if we do not have a system in place to monitor and support our continued growth. In other words…
  8. Follow up by checking in on a regular basis. Continue to invest in your people by creating experiences whereby your interactions with them go beyond the surface and become more meaningful and personal so that your time together begins to benefit both of you and you come to understand what they need to thrive in their work. Fostering trusting relationships with your team allows you to set the expectations and be more…
  9. Clear in your expectations moving forward.  You won’t need to worry about impeding the progress you have made because they believe you have their best interest at heart. Every individual must know what is expected of them in order to grow and develop in their role and maximize their potential. That is on us as leaders to be clear, concise, model, and inspire others to want to be a part of an organization where employees who strive for excellence are not looked down upon or worse yet, become a bullseye for gossip by jealous co-workers. As leaders, we must…
  10. Recognize and applaud the efforts of our staff and team on a personal and more consistent basis. After all, we know that people who feel valued and appreciated will always do more than what is expected. But we must also be willing to recognize and address our team when their efforts slip below the standard we expect. This is not only the right thing to do, but it is the fair thing to do. It is our duty, our obligation to do so.

Every employee deserves to be treated fairly. They also want to know that we care about them.  But we cannot continue to accept sub-standard performances by our support staff, teachers and administrators. The health and well-being of our students and school communities depend on us.  Let’s commit today to doing something about it.

Our students and best people are looking at us to cure this epidemic.  Will you join me?


Question of the day: What other ways can we address underperformance?








  • Susie Olesen
    8 months ago

    Seems to me that sometimes we don’t see our role in providing support to staff. Here’s what Richard Elmore said about it, “Accountability must be a reciprocal process. For every increment of performance I demand from you, I have an equal responsibility to provide you with the capacity to meet that expectation. Likewise, for every investment you make in my skill and knowledge, I have a reciprocal responsibility to demonstrate some new increment in performance. This is the principle of “reciprocity of accountability for capacity.” It is the glue that, in the final analysis, will hold accountability systems together.”
    Richard Elmore, 2000, Bridging the Gap Between Standards and Accountability

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