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.

The Unconventional Way Great Leaders Show Their People They Care

We were at the point in the workshop when participants begin feeling uncomfortable. One participant raised his hand and stated, “John, call me a little old school, but I refuse to know my people on a personal level or treat them anything like my family because the day might come when I have to let them go. I don’t want to make it awkward or deal with the feelings of having to let go of someone I care a lot about.”

While on the surface, his logic made sense, he couldn’t have been more wrong. The best leaders build trust with their people. Part of that trust is knowing they are cared for and loved by their boss. Yes, I used the word love, but not in any HR violation kind of way. Love is a component to elevate other people which is critical to be a successful leader today. I define love in Building the Best as “to contribute to someone’s long-term success and well being.”

Don’t just take my word for it. 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. While recognition is essential, there is an additional 20% jump by in performance by showing your people you care for them. 

How to Show You Care

For your team to understand how much you care about them, you must reject the notion that words hold great power. In this case, talk is cheap. Your power comes from your actions. These actions can come in two fairly obvious forms:   

Make time. Like all great relationships, the only way to build them is by dedicating time. A mentor of mine told me, “Kids spell love T-I-M-E.” The same is true in showing your team you care about them. While the amount of time can help, it’s not always about the length of time you spend but choosing to be being present during the time together. It could be as simple as a text message between meetings or putting your phone away during lunch together.  

Know Them On a Personal Level. As the participant in my workshop, you might be uncomfortable with this one. The time to get comfortable with it is now. It isn’t complicated, and it also doesn’t mean you have to be friends. Simply ask questions about a person’s journey, experiences, challenges, and career aspirations. When they talk, LISTEN. Recalling the details of your conversations with them proves you listened and care about them. 

Pro Tip: If you have a larger team, create a spreadsheet to record the names of their significant other, hobbies, interests, passions, favorite things, and dreams of the individuals on your team. Keep it updated and handy, so you can be in tune with things going on in their life inside and outside of work. 

The Less Obvious Way to Show You Care

One of my first professional jobs was working for my dad. While those years were rocky, he did something with me constantly that showed how much he cared. He challenged me. 

While his methods for challenging me could be argued, I had little doubt he cared about me because he knew I was capable of more. By challenging me to raise my game, he showed me he cared (even if I didn’t realize that’s what it was at the time.)

Challenging people is so important because it’s human nature to only stretch ourselves to the point where we feel discomfort. Often it takes someone challenging us to go further or reach higher for it to become a reality. 

Here is the key, having solid relationships and a strong bond of mutual trust is critical for you to challenge them in order to get a positive response. Below are a few of my favorite times or places to challenge someone on your team to show you care:

  • Their preparation for a big event or meeting
  • Their effort in developing their skills
  • Their focus during a critical time
  • Their ability to think more creatively and innovatively

If you care about your people, then don’t be afraid to challenge them lovingly. 

What are the best ways you have been challenged, or how to do you challenge your people to show them you care?  

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About the Author: John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company that exists to turn managers into leaders and create healthier places to work. He is currently booking events and speaking engagements for 2020. 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 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.