6 Ways to Quickly Motivate Underperforming Employees

For small business owners, what’s the biggest challenge when it comes to running an organization? It’s not innovating new ideas, developing creative marketing campaigns, or even selling products. The single biggest challenge is managing human capital. In other words, it comes down to hiring and leading the right people.

Six Tips for Reaching Underperforming Employees

Every company has groups of employees – tiers, if you will. There are employees who are clearly going places. These are guys and gals who quickly climb the ladder and seem to positively influence everything they touch. Then, most large companies have a couple of “mistake” employees. These are the individuals you messed up on evaluating during the hiring process – the ones who won’t ever have a positive impact on the future of your organization.

But somewhere in the middle lies your largest group of employees. These are the folks who have the potential to be in the first tier, but ultimately underperform in everything they do. Your ability to run a successful organization depends on motivating this group and maximizing their potential.

Motiving underperforming employees is easier said than done, but you also don’t have to overthink things.

  1. Provide Some Clear Feedback

One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to motivate employees is that they start a conversation without providing any context. While some employees know that they’re underperforming, many do not. If you suddenly begin talking about how things need to change and give an ultimatum, they’re going to be confused and offended.

Begin by providing clear and tangible feedback. Say something like, “John, did you notice that your sales numbers were 35 percent below our department goals last month? That’s a substantial amount and we need to figure out some ways to bring your sales volume up this month.”

Notice how the feedback mentioned specific numbers and an isolated timeframe. That’s clear feedback that gives you a foundation to stand on and a starting point for motivation.

  1. Draw a Line in the Sand

The issue many business leaders have with giving feedback is that they try to take a roundabout method. In order to not offend someone, they’ll tiptoe around the issue and hope that the message is received in a gentle manner. The reality is that you don’t have this luxury. You have every right to tell an employee when they aren’t measuring up and it’s imperative that you draw a line in the sand and quickly correct unsatisfactory behavior.

Using the previous example, drawing a line in the sand would look like this: “John, we’re going to need you to increase your sales numbers by 15 percent this month, or we’re going to have to talk about moving you to a new department.”

The line has officially been drawn. If John doesn’t improve his sales numbers, he knows that you’re prepared to do something. Notice that you left some wiggle room in your statement by saying you’ll “talk” about a move. However, in his mind, this is pretty much an ultimatum.

  1. Listen to Their Issues and Find the Root Cause

Sometimes, an employee has good reasons for a lack of performance. Instead of delivering an ultimatum and then walking away, spend time probing and listening. Is the employee going through some rough personal issues at home? Does the employee feel like he doesn’t have the tools needed to be successful? Is the employee struggling with a very specific aspect of his job?

In other words, it isn’t always the employee that needs to be motivated. Sometimes, there’s an actual issue that may be going undetected. Taking time to listen and help can prove to be invaluable in the long run.

  1. Don’t Get Hostile

The majority of employees don’t respond well to aggressive behavior. They may tell you to your face that they’ll “do better,” but they’ll walk away feeling bitter and damaged. Hostility is not the key to motivation. There are times when you’ll need to raise your voice or call someone out, but these are exceptions to the rule.

“Embrace the theory (Theory Y, to be exact) that people are self-motivated, ambitious, and possess self-control and treat them accordingly,” consultant Kim Eisenberg says. “The vast majority will rise to the occasion. The ones who don’t are either likely in the wrong role or have things going on in their lives outside work that are keeping them from giving 100%.”

  1. Know When to Move On

Keeping underperforming employees in your organization for an extended period of time can ultimately have a ripple effect on the other employees in the company.

Firing an employee is not something that should be high on your to-do list. This is a last resort decision that should only be implemented when there’s no other way out. However, if an employee continues to underperform, even after you’ve invested months of time motivating them, then a conversation needs to happen.

Every Employee Can be Motivated

Not every employee is equally talented or creative. Some have more potential than others. However, the truth is that everyone can be motivated to become the best version of themselves.

As a business owner who has already made the decision to hire an individual, that’s all you can ask for.

Larry Alton is a professional blogger, writer and researcher who contributes to a number of reputable online media outlets and news sources, including Entrepreneur.com, HuffingtonPost.com, and Business.com, among others. In addition to journalism, technical writing and in-depth research, he’s also active in his community and spends weekends volunteering with a local non-profit literacy organization and rock climbing. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.