21 Ways to Motivate Underperforming Employees

The reasons behind an employee underperforming vary, but the bottom line is that it is not good for business. As the boss, it is your responsibility to get to the root of the problem and work on finding the correct solution for you and the employee. Here are 21 ways to motivate underperforming employees.

1. Question Yourself
All employees should have a basic understanding of what is expected of them. If their purpose for working in your company hasn’t been established, they won’t know that they are underperforming. As the boss, you need to stop and ask yourself important questions.

  • Have all employees been clearly told what you expect them to do?
  • Do they understand the consequences of underperforming?
  • Are they given regular and straightforward training, such as face-to-face, training materials or otherwise?

If your employees are not even aware of their own performance failures, then it is necessary to give them an education, not a confrontation.

2. Keep Emotions Out of It
If discussions with employees ever get too emotional, it becomes much more difficult to get on the same page. Accusatory or threatening behavior won’t benefit anyone. It is important to stay calm and collect your thoughts as you address your underperforming employee. When having important discussions with employees about performance, you have to keep it about business being first.

3. Be Respectful and Honest
Poor leadership is one of the main reasons why employees quit their jobs and look for work elsewhere. If you are respectful and honest with underperforming employees, they will give you respect back. Brian Tracy, Chairman and CEO of Brian Tracy International, says that great leaders never compromise their honesty and integrity by cheating, and they are not afraid of the truth. If you know your employees need to perform better, you have to tell them the truth. Respect your employees as people and where they are coming from, but let the truth prevail.

4. Make a List of What’s Not Working
Before you have an important discussion with your underperforming employee, you should set aside 15 minutes of your time to sort out what is going wrong. Start thinking about the core issues and make a list of things that are not working with this employee. Break the list down into categories such as recent examples of times they underperformed, how they have let the team down, and what specific tasks they delivered poor work on. Having such a list will jog your memory so you can reference some specific examples of poor performance.

5. Ask Them What They Want
It is better to actually sit down with your employees and find out what they value than to guess what is most important to them. When you create individual performance targets, it is wise to include your employees in this process. Ask them how they would like to improve, what they would like to achieve and if they want to learn any new skills. Create these targets using the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-framed) model. When discussing performance with your employee, ask questions together such as;

  • What can we do, together, to prevent these performance issues in the future?
  • What are we doing to ensure these issues improve?
  • What can other members of the team do to contribute?

6. Train the Employee with a Strong Plan
If the employee doesn’t want to be trained, then there is nothing you can do to change their performance and decision time. According to Joseph Weintraub, a professor of management and organizational behavior at Babson College, if someone implies that they are not going to change, then you as a boss have got to make a decision whether you can live with the issue and at what cost.

If underperforming employees want to be trained, then lay out a strong plan for them. Training should include your expectations of performance, and you should ask employees if your training can be improved. Give your employees new knowledge and skills that will benefit both you and their long-term career.

7. Follow up and Monitor Progress
Once employees are appropriately trained, you have to make sure that they learn from that training. If you don’t monitor their progress, it is likely that they will make mistakes and will not perform to your expectations. If your company has manager roles, as your managers to help track their work and report to you confidentially. “It says I want this to work and I want you to feel comfortable; I’m not going to sneak around your back,” Weintraub says.

8. Share Positive Feedback
Employees want to feel fulfilled in their work. Fulfillment is one of the key job satisfaction factors. Giving and receiving feedback is a delicate process, but make it known to your employees that not all feedback will be negative. Scott Halford, author of Be a Shortcut: The Secret Fast Track to Business Success, says that positive feedback “stimulates the reward centers in the brain, leaving the recipient open to taking new direction.” Even if your employees make glaring mistakes, don’t dwell on negativity, but instead focus on what your employees did right.

9. Recognize Improvement
Employees seek some recognition for a job well done. If an employee invests a lot of time working on a project, or they went out of their way to help out a colleague, don’t be afraid to applaud them. It isn’t just about the act of recognition, but the principle of it. If people feel appreciated, they will feel motivated to keep working hard. According to Globoforce, 78% of employees would work harder if they were better recognized. When you see improved performance from employees who previously underperformed, recognize them for their actions that align with your company’s strategy and goals. Pinpoint both the big and the small wins achieved, and highlight how much of team players your employees are.

10. Take Action if There Isn’t Improvement
If there are no signs of improvement from your underperforming employees, even after you have had conversations with them and have trained them, then you have to change your demeanor. If an employee starts taking advantage of your kindness, you shouldn’t tolerate that. “At some point, you leave coaching and get into the consequences speech. You might say, ‘Let me be very clear that this is the third time this has happened and since your behavior hasn’t changed, I need to explain the consequences,'” Weintraub says. While you want to be positive and supportive, you also have to remain consistent and firm.

11. Offer Food In the Workplace
Sometimes all you have to do to make people happy is to feed them. Food can contribute to employee performance. According to a survey taken by Seamless, 57% of employees said that food-based perks would make them feel more valued and appreciated. As a boss if you pay attention to the physical needs of your employees, they will get the impression that you care about them as people, and not just as workers. Seamless also revealed that 38% said food perks would make them more likely to endorse their employer.

12. Always Be Transparent
Provide insight into how the business is going. When data about your company is collected on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, make it a point to share this data with your team on a regular schedule. If you have software such as Square’s POS (Point of Sale), you can send out sales reports and information about how many of your customers are new compared to those who are returning. Having access to this data will make your employees feel more important, and it will help point out the areas where things can be improved.

13. Make Scheduling Flexible
Over time, technology has changed the way companies operate, and the way that people work. If employees are able and expected to check work email on their phones or finish projects on their laptops at home, it makes sense to offer them more flexibility in their schedules. According to a study by Forbes, 46% of respondents said that flexibility is the most important factor when it comes to job searching.

14. Add Responsibilities
One reason why employees may not feel motivated to work is that they haven’t been given enough responsibilities in your company. They may feel like they don’t have enough work to do and that they are just standing around, waiting for something to happen. Engagement and satisfaction are mainly based on autonomy and independence. Employees care the most when something feels like it is on their shoulders. Put underperforming employees in charge of something, whether big or small, and see how they respond.

15. Subtract Micromanaging
It is hard to motivate employees if they feel like they are being micromanaged every step of the way. Even when you add responsibilities to the workload of your employees, keep those responsibilities fun and encouraging, and not stressful and overwhelming. When you create guidelines for your employees to follow, give them the freedom and space to accomplish the task their way. Their job will become more meaningful, which will be an outward expression of their skills, talent, and experience.

16. Consider External Factors
If the performance of an employee has suddenly dropped, chances are that it could be the result of external factors, such as the personal life of the underperforming employee. The situation could be temporary such as relationship issues, moving to a new house, having a new child, family illness, or it may be more serious, such as physical or mental health. If issues are developing for employees away from work, you should have compassion and be willing to help them get through these difficult periods of time.

17. Establish the Right Work Environment
A dull workplace will not motivate some employees to work hard enough. While you don’t want to turn the workplace into a roller coaster theme park, you should ensure your employees that your company doesn’t take itself too seriously. Give your employees space to express themselves, especially in their own offices. If employees want to sit on beanbag chairs to work, then have them be available. If employees prefer to accomplish a task while they make a cup of coffee, give them the freedom to do so.

18. Be Willing to Listen
Issuing an ultimatum and walking away isn’t always the answer to motivating employees. Be willing to spend time and listen to what underperforming employees have to say. Sometimes it doesn’t take you as a boss to lay everything out verbally, but rather your employees will come to you and voice their concerns. Sometimes the core issues behind an employee’s lack of performance reveal themselves while you train them or while they are in the middle of a new assignment.

19. Collaborate
Poor collaboration often leads to workplace failures. According to a Salesforce survey, 86% of participants believed that the lack of collaboration was responsible for workplace failures. Having a better understanding of your employees, and allowing them to better understand you, can be achieved through collaborating on projects. Being directly involved with underperforming employees will give you an idea of what is needed for them to improve.

20. Offer Employee Rewards
People will stay in your company if you give them a reason to. Keeping employees motivated involves an incentive system being put in place. Whether it is a quarterly bonus or a commission structure that is better than the competition, you have to be willing to reward your employees for the good work that they do. If employees know they will be rewarded, they will be more likely to perform better and stay in your company to see things through.

21. End the Employment
You have given underperforming employees every opportunity to improve, but they just haven’t responded well enough. Responsible employers don’t avoid the inevitable. Though letting someone go is an unenviable task and should be treated as a last resort, you must realize that some employees simply won’t be a good fit for your company. Letting go of employees can actually motivate them to perform better in their next job so that they don’t make the same mistakes they made in your company. Holding onto an underperforming employee can promote negativity, low morale and poor quality of work.


There are many avenues a boss can take to solve the issue of employee underperformance. The main goal is to find the best solution based on the circumstance at hand in order to help your employee increase their performance level, and in turn, better help your business.

Author Biography
Keith Miller has over 25 years of experience as a CEO and serial entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur, he has founded several multi-million dollar companies. As a writer, Keith's work has been mentioned in CIO Magazine, Workable, BizTech, and The Charlotte Observer. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our content editing team a message here.