Low Performers: How to Support Them and Your Team

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Radical Candor" by Kim Scott. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you have low performers on your team? How do you support them and help out the entire team who might be picking up the slack?

Low performers can be a challenge for the organization and for you as a manager. If everyone has to fill in where one person is falling short, there might be resentment towards the poor performing employee.

Keep reading for more about managing low performers.

Managing Low Performers That Show No Growth

When someone has a track record of being a poor performing employee, and isn’t showing any signs of improvement, you most likely need to fire them. Before doing so, there are three questions to ask yourself:

  • Have I demonstrated radical candor toward the low performers? Reflect on your relationship with this person, considering if you’ve adequately shown your investment in her as a person, and been clear in your expectations when challenging her. Reflect on your feedback sessions: has your praise been sincere, and your criticism followed up with solutions? 
  • How is this person’s performance affecting my team? If this person isn’t performing well, it’s likely that their poor work has been getting in the way of other team members’ work or has been taking your attention away from higher-performing team members. Are they contributing anything worthwhile to the team, or just bringing everyone down? 
  • Have I asked for advice from someone else? Ask for a neutral third party’s opinion—it’s possible that you weren’t as clear with your expectations as you thought, or you’re not looking at everything this team member contributes to the team, only what they’re taking away. A third party can tell you whether you’re justified in firing your employee, or need to give them a second chance.

Managing Low Performers With Expected Rapid Growth

You might be faced with an employee who, based on their past track record of high performance, should be excelling and taking on new projects, but is instead falling behind or slacking. There are four likely reasons for this: 1) they’re in the wrong role, 2) they’re having a bumpy entry into their new role, 3) they’re having problems at home, or 4) it’s a poor cultural fit. 

They’re in the wrong role: Their low performance may be a reflection of your decision to put them in the wrong role. Keep in mind that your employee likely won’t tell you if this is the problem—blaming your boss for your own performance is uncomfortable and feels like an attempt to refuse accountability. You should ask yourself: Are their attributes aligned with this role’s required skill set? Would they do better elsewhere? 

For example, you have an employee who’s a wonderful leader and gets great results, so you put her on a tough project. To your surprise, her results are very poor, and she seems completely unmotivated. After considering her attributes, you realize that she’s a great leader because she’s wonderful at working with people, but this particular project requires hours behind closed doors, crunching numbers. You transfer her to a new project where she manages people, and she excels in the new role. 

They’re having a bumpy entry into their new role: There are a few reasons your employee might be having a hard time finding their place in a new role. First, they may not have had adequate training. Ask yourself if your expectations are clear, and if their training covered everything they need to know. You might find you need to invest a bit more time into giving more effective training. Second, they may be overloaded with work. Make sure you’re not giving them too much to handle right out of the gate—it’s easy for bosses to lose sight of an employee’s “newness” and give them a workload that only someone with years of experience could accomplish quickly.

They’re having problems at home: Naturally, your employees will occasionally have to deal with personal problems that will affect their work performance. If you’re aware of something happening in your employee’s home life, let her have time and space to recover from the issue on her own. Show that you care by not pushing for high performance until she’s ready—this leads to an effective recovery, instead of a buildup of stress and resentment. 

It’s a poor cultural fit: Sometimes an employee is a great fit for the role, but not your work culture. This is an incredibly difficult gap to close. In this case, it’s usually best that the employee leave the organization—otherwise, they will be held back in a culture or among colleagues that they’re always at odds with.

Nudging Mediocrity One Way or the Other 

Sometimes, you’ll have an employee who is simply average as opposed to a poor performing employee—they regularly hand in work that’s good but not great, and don’t show much evidence of growth. There are several reasons an employee can get stuck in mediocrity. Sometimes, they’re uninterested in changing—either they fear taking a step back in order to restart on a new path, they feel pressure to keep their position, or they’re in their position solely for the money and power. Other times, the boss doesn’t want to go through the effort of the firing process. Many bosses hesitate on this process because they think it will be too hard to find and train a new person, or the discomfort of the conversation and the employee’s negative feelings is too daunting.

A good boss treats a mediocre employee fairly—this means knowing her well enough to decide if you should let her go or give her space. Letting your employee go is the fair choice when she’s clearly stuck in a position she’s not suited for or thriving in. It’s unfair to assume that mediocrity is just the best she can do. While the process of firing takes time and effort, and feels like the “mean” thing to do, it’s selfish and cruel to stifle an employee’s potential by keeping her onboard just so you can avoid effort and discomfort. Giving your employee space is the fair choice when she needs to recover from a personal event. A boss who cares personally about her employees understands what’s going on in their lives and how it may cause their work to fall short, and knows to avoid pushing for better performance in a moment when their employee can’t handle it.

Growth Management Mistakes to Avoid

Bosses often make a couple mistakes when thinking of how to manage their employees. First, they think of their employees in terms of their “potential”—this automatically ranks superstars above rock stars, even though they’re equally important. It’s helpful to reframe how you think. Instead of focusing on potential, consider your employees’ past performance, growth, and willingness or interest in continuing their growth. This line of thinking gives you the best idea of whose work is consistently valuable, and what type of growth trajectory each of your employees is on. 

Second, many bosses think that pushing all employees into a rapid growth trajectory will lead to better results. However, the best results are delivered when you see and honor the motivations of each of your employees. Your rock stars shouldn’t be forced into doing work or taking on roles that come with a work or stress level they’ll find overwhelming. Keeping them on a gradual growth trajectory contributes to great results because it prevents burnout. Your superstars, on the other hand, can and should be put on a rapid growth trajectory—this contributes to great results by preventing boredom and frustration. 

While it’s important to manage all of your employees, you’ll want to focus most of your time on supporting your rock stars and superstars. Otherwise, you end up wasting time trying to take “okay” to “good” when you could be focusing your efforts on taking “good” to “great.” When you have a strong team and you can trust that all your employees are doing great work, then you can trust that they’ll work together in a way that drives great results.

How (and Why) Labels Change: Low Performers Don’t Stay That Way

These labels are not permanent—growth trajectories and goals change constantly, based on work or life events that dictate the amount of work someone can take on. High performers may reach a point where they’re no longer invested in the work and become low performers, or one of your superstars may have a situation in their home life that slows their growth for the time being. For example, Scott—usually in a superstar role—found herself needing extra time to readjust after the birth of her twins. She asked to be placed in a rock star role for several years, allowing her to spend more time with her family. When she was ready, she jumped back onto her superstar trajectory. 

Because circumstances are constantly changing, it’s important that you frequently check in with your employees to learn about what’s going on in their lives, talk about their ambitions, and ensure that their growth trajectory suits them. In the next chapter, we’ll discuss how to have these conversations and put all your team members on the right track.  

Low Performers: How to Support Them and Your Team

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Kim Scott's "Radical Candor" at Shortform .

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  • How you have to be direct with people while also caring sincerely for them
  • Why relationships are an essential part of successful leadership
  • How to create a strong team culture that delivers better results

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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