Coaching an Underperforming Employee: How to Help Struggling Workers Succeed

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Even the most dedicated and skilled employees may experience periods of underperformance from time to time. These moments can significantly impact overall productivity and team morale in any organization. Addressing underperforming employees is not about criticism, rather it requires a multi-faceted, often objective approach. 

This is where the power of coaching underperformers comes into play. It provides an objective way to stimulate growth and improvement for those struggling with performance.

As an employer, it is paramount to explore valuable strategies for establishing a supportive and constructive approach to coaching underperforming employees. 

Causes and Impacts of Underperformance 

Providing coaching to underperforming employees without understanding the root cause can lead to superficial solutions that don’t yield lasting results. Recognizing the signs early on is important to effectively support the employee. 

Common underperformance indicators may include a decline in productivity, missed deadlines, lack of engagement, and diminished quality of work. Leaders should stay vigilant of these signs and provide coaching for underperforming employees as a means of support and to instigate change.

Low performance affects the individual at hand and reverberates through the entire team and organization. Morale may dip, teamwork can suffer, and overall productivity takes a hit. Promptly addressing low performance prevents it from becoming a persistent issue, which could ultimately permeate the overall company culture. Leveraging coaching early on can redirect the employee’s trajectory and production levels and keep leadership focused on the bigger picture. 

There are many reasons why employees may not be performing their best. Some common reasons include:

  • Lack of skills or knowledge: Employees may not have the skills or knowledge necessary to perform their jobs effectively. For instance, an employee lacking essential technical skills might struggle to meet project requirements. 
  • Lack of motivation: Team members may be unmotivated to do their job for a variety of reasons, such as feeling underappreciated, a lack of job security, or that their work does not make a difference. Burnout and disengagement are becoming increasingly common in today’s workplace — a recent study by Gallup reported that 76% of employees experience burnout on the job at least sometimes, while 28% said they are burned out “very often” or “always” at work. 
  • Lack of resources: Employees may not have the resources they need to do their jobs effectively, such as access to required technology, reasonable commute allowances, continued education opportunities, or leadership support.

Considering various factors that contribute to low performance gives you a better grasp of your team’s diverse challenges and offers insight into how coaching underperformers can make a big difference for your organization. For example, investing in additional training or development opportunities through coaching can address skill gaps and make career advancement options more accessible, boosting motivation in your employees.

Remember, patience and understanding are key components when it comes to investing in coaching for your underperforming employees. Most employees can overcome underperformance and achieve their full potential with time and effort, which can ultimately result in a positive long-term return on your initial investment. 

The Coaching Session 

Step 1: Preparation and Tools 

As mentioned, a successful coaching session hinges on establishing a positive and supportive atmosphere. Ensure that coaching sessions are held in a private and comfortable setting where the employee feels at ease expressing themselves. Additionally, coaches set the tone with empathy and approachability to build problem-solving skills, encourage growth, and promote well-being in the workplace.

Open communication and active listening are also powerful tools in coaching underperforming employees. An effective coach will be attentive and engaged during the session and actively listen to the employee’s concerns, feedback, and ideas to better understand their perspective. 

Step 2: Giving Feedback 

Negative feedback can be uncomfortable and disheartening for anyone. However, it can also be a catalyst for positive change and improvement when delivered constructively, with a focus on growth. Effective performance coaching can open the line of communication between leadership and their teams, equipping both parties with the tools to have challenging conversations and address concerns with one another directly.  

Professional performance coaches often teach and practice a “sandwich” approach to strike a balance that avoids demotivating the individual. When a coach gives an employee feedback, they will likely: 

  1. Start with positive feedback, such as highlighting the employee’s strengths and past achievements. 
  2. Address areas for improvement with specific examples and provide actionable feedback. 
  3. Conclude with more positive reinforcement, such as acknowledging the employee’s efforts. 

Remember, the coaching of underperforming employees does not end after the session is over. Coaches will regularly check in with the employees, celebrate their achievements, and provide guidance whenever needed to foster a sense of trust and commitment to their progress.

Step 3: Collaborative Goal Setting 

People feel a strong sense of ownership and dedication to their work when they are allowed to actively participate in goal setting. Coaches play a key role in involving employees in this process, understanding their aspirations, recognizing their strengths, and identifying areas for growth. This collaborative approach empowers team members to take charge of their own development, igniting a fire of intrinsic motivation and commitment to achieve their goals. 

Aligning an individual’s goals with the broader team and organizational objectives fosters a sense of purpose and teamwork that increases engagement from a demotivated employee. Providing coaching for underperforming employees will emphasize how their work affects their team’s success and the organization’s overall goals, making them more invested in their role. 

Ambitious long-term goals can be overwhelming and can stall progress and motivation. Coaches can help employees break down their plans into bite-sized, manageable milestones to provide a clear roadmap for steady progress. 

Step 4: Providing Ongoing Support and Encouragement 

Effective performance coaches know that acknowledging an employee’s hard work and commitment goes a long way in boosting their self-esteem and dedication to the process. In addition to coaching underperforming employees at the individual level, coaches also foster success by cultivating a culture of continuous improvement and sustaining a positive trajectory. 

Companies that recognize the efforts and progress of their employees see a significant improvement in employee morale. A study by the American Psychological Association found that 93% of employees who felt valued by their employers were more motivated to do their best at work, while 88% reported feeling engaged. 

A well-supported and encouraged employee is more likely to overcome challenges, stay motivated, and become a valuable asset to the team and organization, benefitting a company’s bottom line significantly by investing in coaching underperformers. 

Activate 180 Coaching for Underperformers 

Providing coaching for an underperforming employee is not just about identifying their weaknesses, but it is also about fostering a culture of growth and support. 

Unsure of where to begin? Let our experts help. Activate 180’s employee coaching encompasses career and life as a whole, addressing all aspects that may impact your team’s productivity. Our high-performance coaching can guide your employees toward unlocking their true potential and achieving peak performance. 
Schedule a call with an expert today to learn more about our comprehensive coaching solutions and take the first step towards fostering a thriving and high-performing workforce

Patrycja Skurzak

Patrycja is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC), Facilitator, and Neurolinguistic Practitioner, empowering employees to operate at their peak performance level. With her background in neuroscience and psychology, she has strengthened and developed the Activate 180 coaching methodology to produce optimized results for companies and their teams.


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