2 Essentials in Leading Low Performers

The other day I was chatting with a colleague, and he said something very profound.  He said that his marriage got a lot better when he stopped focusing on what was wrong with his wife and started to look at how he could be a better husband.  To stop blaming others and focus on ourselves is so simple and yet such a massive shift in how we operate. 

Almost all the time we are focused on what could be better out there, people, things, circumstances, jobs, responsibilities, kids, and so on.  However, if we take a closer look, everything that determines our state of mind is what we are thinking, feeling and doing.  In leadership, we can stop focusing on how our employees and co-workers can do better, and focus on what we are thinking, feeling and doing so we can change if we need to.

A typical situation as a leader is to have a low performer, and we really don’t know how to move this person to average performance and ultimately, high performance.  Low performers cause stress, consume vast chunks of time and may keep us up at night.

Typical supervisory behaviors that are used to address the low performance are:

  • Avoid the person and maybe they will go away;
  • Minimize what they are doing or not doing and the rest of the team picks up the slack;
  • Continually tell them to improve but do nothing else;
  • Let the irritation build about the behavior and blow up in anger;
  • Write them up;
  • Fire them with no conversation.

People are not all the same.  Some employees will never perform at an acceptable level. However, as leaders, we can give them every opportunity and chance to improve with some internal, reflective work and with direct conversations.

Two essential behaviors when leading low performers are self-reflection and receptive, honest communication.


Self-awareness is the most useful skill we can learn as a leader.  By self-reflecting, we must first look to see what we can do to improve our own performance.  The most important behavior to inspire change is to model how we want people to be.  If I’m reflecting with curiosity and compassion on how I can be a better leader, then others will be inspired to do the same.  This is not the same as doing the work for people or blaming ourselves for their lack of performance.  It’s opening up and saying, “What can I do differently to motivate and inspire people to perform at a higher level?”  In most cases, it’s as simple as saying good morning to them or asking how their family is.  Frequently recognizing that they are there and that you see them is the first essential step.  Building relationships and talking to people frequently are sparks of motivation.  Are you showing them that you care about them as people?  Why would they want to work for you?

Receptive, Honest Communication

We must look to see how we are addressing the low performance.  Do we have all the facts?  Have we had an open and honest conversation with the employee?  What story are we telling ourselves about what is going on.  It’s possible that the facts are not accurate and the employee is not able to perform for various reasons.  It’s critical to sit down with the person and be curious.  Listen carefully to hear their side of it.  At some point, you can determine if the employee can improve or does not have the values or ability to stay on your team.  Never rule out formal counseling but first, we need to treat them as human beings.  As leaders, it’s essential to have frequent, direct, and authentic conversations to inspire, coach, and mentor others.