How the Best Leaders Help Underperforming Employees


It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out some people perform better than others. Not only do high-performing professionals produce better business outcomes, but they tend to be more engaged and help their team or organization be successful. 

Unfortunately, most professionals aren’t reaching their full potential. Research of over 14,500 employees found approximately 85% were not working at 100% of their potential. If that weren’t bad enough, 16% said they were using less than 50% of their potential. 

As scary as these statistics are, feelings of doubt, worry, emptiness, and hopelessness set in when we underperform for long periods. We start to believe we aren’t good enough or worthy enough of success, which couldn’t be further from the truth.  

When people underperform for long periods, they start to believe they aren’t worthy of success, which couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Many possible factors can cause us to underperform. These are just a few: 

  • Lack of talent
  • Bad coaching or being uncoachable
  • Limited work ethic or self-discipline
  • Scarce resources
  • Bad or unfortunate luck 

Since some of these factors are outside of our control, it’s important to lean into the one thing that can help any underperforming team member. A leader who cares and embraces the responsibility of helping other people reach their full potential. 

Often, the only thing holding someone back from reaching their full potential is a leader who cares about them. 

If you are leading an underperforming team member or want to take your current team to higher performance levels, here’s what you can do.

1. Reinvest in the Relationship

People work harder and push themselves to new performance levels when there is a bond of mutual trust with their boss.

Researchers at the University of Berkley studied what motivates productivity in professionals. When people felt recognized for the work they did, they were 23% more effective and productive. But what’s even more astonishing is that when people felt valued and cared for, their productivity and effectiveness experienced a 43% increase. Make time for one-on-one meetings with team members to find out what’s important to them, what goals they want to achieve, and what current challenges they are facing in their life.  

2. Clarify The Truth

One of the most significant mistakes leaders make is providing a lack of clarity around how their team members are currently performing. If I have learned anything from coaching managers and executives over the last ten years it’s this: great leadership clarifies.

Great Leadership Clarifies

Clarifying performance doesn’t mean solely focusing on the outcomes, a person or team achieves. Instead, the best leaders focus on the leading performance indicators instead of lagging indicators. They observe and coach things like effort, attitude, and skill development because they know these are the things that ultimately produce consistent outcomes. 

3. Elevate the Standards

Anytime performance isn’t where you need or want it; it’s time to elevate the standard. A standard is simply defining what good looks like. In Building the Best, I wrote;

Good leaders define what good looks like; Great leaders define what great looks like. 

I shared some ideas for this in a recent keynote:

4. Accelerate with Accountability

Many words make people uncomfortable; “accountability” is one of those words. Accountability is simply the obligation of an individual or organization to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them, and to disclose the results in a transparent manner.

My mentor always told me, “What you tolerate, you encourage.” It is your obligation to hold yourself and others accountable to the standards. Otherwise, you’re encouraging sub-standard behavior. To do this effectively, have the courage and a proven model to have direct dialogues with your people when standards aren’t met. 

5. Give Ample Time 

One of the fastest ways to improve performance isn’t by addition but by reduction. If you have given ample time, effort, and coaching to help improve a team member’s performance and nothing seems to change, it’s time to move on.  

Do your best to find a different situation, role, or leader to help support their future development. The hard truth is that no leader is the perfect fit for everyone, which is ok.  


While there is no perfect or full-proof strategy to turn around an underperforming team member, I hope these ideas help you. 

There is nothing easy about helping turn around an underperforming team member. However, helping someone meet their full potential is a worthwhile endeavor. The benefits to their life and career are unquantifiable. 

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About the Author John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company helping executives and managers to lead their best. He was named one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Management & Workplace. John is also the author of Building the Best: 8 Proven Leadership Principles to Elevate Others to Success. You can follow him on Instagram @johngeades.

How Great Leaders Connect With People They Don’t Like

With some people, connections come easy. Maybe you have a similar background, shared hobbies or a mutual friend. With others, however, you may not have much in common, which can make it harder to connect. If leaders aren’t careful, this can also make these individuals harder to lead.

However, research by Max Nathan and Neil Lee showed that diverse teams help companies be more successful. More often than not, this means that you will end up hiring employees with whom you share little in common but fill an important skill deficient area. 

One of the proven leadership principles from my research for Building the Best: 8 Proven Leadership Principles to Elevate Others to Success is:

Without Strong Relationships, You Can’t Lead

Since having strong relationships is a key to successful leadership, it’s important you cultivate great relationships with these individuals that aren’t exactly like you. It may not seem like you have much in common at first, but with a little effort, you can strengthen your relationship and get better results from these essential team members.

Find common ground through achievement.

Despite your differences, you always have one thing in common with your employees: a shared goal for achieving the best possible outcomes for your company.

In many ways, this is similar to how successful sports teams operate. You bring together players with different backgrounds, who all play different roles on the team. Yet, they have the same end goal: winning. As coaches and teammates work together toward these common goals and celebrate their achievements, they build trust and unity.

In a business setting, you have the responsibility of helping to set and communicate goals with your people. When you mutually agree on a common goal it creates a commonality to help you work better together. This helps everyone become more fully invested in the team, regardless of how much they share in common.

Spend double the amount of one-on-one time with these employees.

One-on-one time with your employees is crucial for building a successful team and building stronger bonds. Too often leaders gravitate towards spending time with people they like or have the most in common with instead of spending time with people they should spend time with.

As Jeff Butler, a keynote speaker and workforce consultant for the likes of household brands like TEDx, Google, Amazon and Wells Fargo, writes, “When I survey crowds across various industries, usually 30 percent of attendees have consistent one-on-one meetings … One-on-one meetings are an unequivocal way to foster employee engagement and increase employee retention.”

In fact, research from Gallup indicates that employees who have regular meetings with their managers are “three times as likely to be engaged” as those who don’t have this face-to-face time.

These meetings aren’t just a chance to evaluate performance or go over an employee’s goals. They also provide a valuable opportunity to get to know an employee better. This one-on-one time helps an employee feel valued and allows you to gain new insights into their personality and interests. Who knows, you just might find that you share something in common after all.

Practice empathy.

Empathy is a crucial leadership trait that allows you to better understand the unique feelings and perspectives of those you lead. When practiced properly, empathy allows you to connect with employees of all stripes and earn their respect, which in turn will improve workplace satisfaction, foster collaboration and even increase productivity.

I define empathy for our students as, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and acting differently because of it. The only way for you to practice this on an ongoing basis is by being a phenomenal listener.  

If listening isn’t your strong suit, try anchoring yourself in every conversation by eliminating distractions and being fully present. As you get better at anchoring yourself, it will allow you to show the other person you are listening by changing your behavior based on what they say. 

The best leaders understand the value of building strong relationships with everyone in their company — even those with whom they have little in common. While strengthening these bonds may require some additional effort, it will make all the difference in creating a work environment where everyone feels valued and motivated to give their best effort.

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About the Author John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company which exists to turn professionals into leaders and create healthier places to work. John was named one of LinkedIn’s 2017 Top Voices in Management & Workplace and was awarded the 2017 Readership Award by Training John is also the author the upcoming book Building the Best: 8 Proven Leadership Principles to Elevate Others to Successand host of the “Follow My Lead” Podcast, a show that transfers stories and best practices from today’s leaders to the leaders of tomorrow. You follow him on Instagram @johngeades.