Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on June 11, 2021.
Nearly all leaders have at some point had to manage "someone who thinks their performance is terrific when it's actually just adequate, or worse," Liz Kislik, a consultant and former professor at New York University and Hofstra University, writes for Harvard Business Review.
While the cause of "the mismatch between these employees' real output and their perceptions of success" is often unclear, it's critical that leaders take action, Kislik writes. If they don't, the organization risks either "los[ing] the value of a team member who could thrive if given the proper support" or—even worse—leaders "will appear to condone substandard work, and competent employees may become demotivated and disengage."
However, according to Kislik, there are "five approaches [that] will help you correct the problem behaviors" in such employees—"or understand whether that's even possible."
5 ways to approach 'unaware underperformers'
1. Set clear expectations. To demonstrate the importance of establishing clear expectations, Kislik cites as an example one of her nonprofit clients who had an underperforming VP "who believed she was doing fine because she was making an effort." However, when the VP's manager, a senior executive, tried to discuss the situation with her, he was so concerned about hurting her feelings that rather than explain how her performance was harming the organization and jeopardizing her job, he just "reinforced performance objectives" with her. Ultimately, her manager "reduced her duties as an indirect way of acknowledging her lack of progress," but he later acknowledged that "no one had been direct enough with her about her performance problems."
2. Ensure employees have the support they need. "Most employees need leadership, mentoring, and strong supervision in order to develop, particularly if they're stepping into a function that's new to the company or are promoted to fill an absence in the organization," Kislik writes.
As an example, she cites another client organization that promoted a director-level employee to an executive position without ever evaluating his development needs, "despite the fact that he was suddenly responsible for large numbers of people performing varied jobs." Ultimately, the employee—who incorrectly thought he was doing a decent job, given the promotion—"became a burned-out micromanager, creating operating bottlenecks and severe employee dissatisfaction."
3. Decide if you want to keep investing in the employee. If you're unwilling to continue investing in an underperforming employee, "it's much more practical to reduce your expectations," Kislik writes. For instance, she cites one CEO who eventually "reassigned some of the riskier and sexier aspects" of an underperforming VP's job to another executive—and the VP, although initially offended, eventually "became more successful with the reduced scope of responsibilities."
4. Determine whether the employee will accept assistance. Some underperforming employees simply cannot "recogniz[e] how badly they're performing and that they need help," Kislik writes. As an example, she highlighted the case of a mid-level administrator at a client organization who "bridled at the suggestion that his skills needed to improve and ignored the coaching that was offered to him." Ultimately, "the business was forced to let him go," she writes.
5. Deliver precise praise. When praising "an employee with an inflated sense of their own performance" for genuinely good work, it's critical that you "[c]onnect your positive comments to other things [that] you want them to address," lest they assume your praise means all their work is "outstanding," Kislik writes. She adds, "They may still think too highly of themselves, but doing this gives you a better chance of getting the crucial behaviors you need."
Ultimately, Kislik writes, although coaching an "unaware underperformer" is a time-intensive effort, "[u]nderstanding what's driving their lack of awareness will either help you determine what support they need in order to improve, or confirm your assessment that they just might not be able to satisfy the requirements of the job" (Kislik, Harvard Business Review, 12/2).