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10 great questions for managers to explore underachievement

As a manager, your team's performance reflects on you for better or worse. When one of your employees is underperforming, it's all too easy to start assigning blame. That's why we've picked out these ten essential questions for underachieving employees.

So, before you start throwing fire and brimstone, put yourself in your team member's shoes. Ask yourself (but more importantly, ask them) why they're struggling to meet their targets.

But that's assuming you've identified these issues to begin with. Spotting the signs of underachievement is the first step in providing help.

How to recognise underachievement

Problems with underachievement aren't always easy to spot. After all, we all have our bad weeks every now and then. An employee's productivity might fluctuate a little from week to week. That doesn't always mean there's some larger problem at work.

By using the management tools at your disposal, you can get to the bottom of engagement and productivity issues:

  • Goal tracking: Set and track employee objectives as part of a regular check-in. That way, you'll be able to assess performance trends over time. Best of all, it guarantees regular progress updates without you having to micromanage!
  • Talent mapping: Sometimes, these issues run deeper than one member of your team. Problems with underachievement can result from teams or individuals not having the skills or training they need. Talent mapping can expose skills deficiencies in your employee base. This is essential for informing your future hiring and training decisions.
  • Formal conversations: Whether virtual or face-to-face, the best solution is usually to talk. If you want honest insight, an in-person 1:1 is probably the best way to go. But if it has to be virtual, our automated conversation templates make sure you address all the vital issues.

The process of improvement

So, let's assume you've identified an underachieving employee. Rather than berating them for sloppy performance, you should respond by helping them. Fortunately, helping employees to improve is a simple four-step process:

  • Recognition: First, your employee needs to understand that there's a problem. It's important to have this conversation in a tactful way. Don't give them an earful or embarrass them in front of colleagues. Otherwise, they'll just dig their heels in. Make it a private conversation, and broach the issue in a tactful, emotionally intelligent way.
  • Discussion: Once you've achieved a shared understanding, it's time to explore the issue. This is where our list of questions for underachieving employees will come in handy. It's your chance to gain context around your employee's poor performance.
  • Planning: Next, it's time to plan your solution. Depending on the factors, you could do any number of things to support struggling employees. They may need new tools or software. Or you could give them more flexibility in their role. You could even assign a mentor to help them grapple with the difficulties of working life.
  • Measurement: Then it's time to see if things improve. Pay attention to their check-ins and progress updates. Give them time to adjust to whatever changes you've made. But if they're still struggling, you'll have to return to the discussion and planning stages.

10 questions to ask underachievers

You know how to spot an underachieving employee. You have the basic framework for how to reach out effectively. So, now it's time for the main event. Here are the ten questions for underachieving employees it's essential to cover.

1: What do you enjoy about your work?

It's a sad reality that enjoyment can't always be the defining factor in the jobs we choose. But even so, plenty of jobs have considerable upsides. Figuring out what your employee likes about their job can inform how you manage them in the future. And if you're lucky, reminding them what they love about their role may even boost their self-motivation.

2: Do you feel confident in your role?

Unfortunately, job training can be far from flawless. Not to mention, rapidly changing workplace tech can render skill sets obsolete.

A study of 1,200 US employees and 1,200 UK employees found that roughly a third (32%) lacked confidence don't feel qualified for their roles. Over half had a colleague they viewed as unqualified. And finally, one in three turned to Google or YouTube for help rather than a co-worker.

3: What changes would you make to your daily work routine?

Take the philosophy of job-crafting and put it into practice. Letting people shape their roles can do so much to improve engagement and wellbeing.

That might mean approaching tasks in their own way. But it's not always about autonomy. Struggling employees may need flexibility options such as remote work. Don't underestimate how work/life balance can wreck even your top talent.

4: How happy do you feel at work in general?

Last year's Great Resignation was also known as the Great Discontent. It proved that too many people have been putting up with jobs they hate. It was followed by record-breaking stress levels and terrible global engagement. All this means one thing:

That this is one of the most important questions for underachieving employees you can ask. Wellbeing matters. If your employees hate their jobs, it's not sustainable just because you give them a salary.

5: Do you have everything you need to do your job?

They say it's a poor craftsman who blames their tools. But that cliché isn't even accurate. The fact is, tools do make a difference. Before you assume that incompetence, consider whether they're making do with outdated software.

6: Do you know how your work impacts the business?

When it comes to questions to ask underachievers, this one is vital. Alignment and purpose are key.

If employees feel like their work doesn't matter, it's easy for them to become disengaged. At that point, a drop in productivity is inevitable. Showing employees their impact can help them take pride in their work.

Using OKRs for goal-setting can help to align employee tasks with business objectives.

7: Do you need some time off?

Burnout is no joke. Going flat out isn't sustainable forever. But employees can often be reluctant to take time off and recuperate. One study found that US workers with paid time off only tended to use half of it. Often, this is because they're worried others will judge them. Encouragement from their manager can push people to actually give themselves a break.

8: How does your role compare to your expectations?

Jobs aren't always what they're built up to be and they can often change over time.

If a new hire isn't engaging, it's possible your recruiters or job description sold them a bit of a fantasy. If your employee has been around a while, perhaps organisational changes have shifted their job role away from what it was.

Understanding an employee's expectations can shed light on where you lost them.

9: Would you prefer to work in a different part of the business?

Sometimes, people don't take to a job like they thought they would. Other times, people get tired of doing one thing for years. Sometimes, people just need a change in role to be their best selves. You can use shadowing and secondments to give staff a taste of life outside your department.

10: Do you have any issues with the way you're managed?

Of all the questions to ask underachievers, this is the hard one. As a manager, it requires you to be humble and open to serious feedback.

For employees, it means biting the bullet and telling it like it is to someone who could fire them. There's no guarantee they'll be forthcoming. If you want to get anywhere, you need to build a good rapport before asking this question.

We've written a great guide on how to have better performance conversations with your people.

Fancy a free copy?