9 Psychology Tips to Motivate Underperforming Employees

May 7, 2021 5 min read
9 Psychology Tips to Motivate Underperforming Employees

In this post, Daniela McVicker takes a look at how psychology can be used to get inside the head of the underperformer and figure out what makes them tick.

An underperforming employee is something every manager or leader will have to face sooner or later, but what’s the best approach? Some will tell you that poor performance is solely down to a lack of ability or self-discipline. Others will duck the issue and just try to remain ‘friends’ with everyone on the team. As with everything in business, the balance lies somewhere in the middle.

Psychology Tips to Motivate Underperforming Employees

Let’s take a look at how you can use the power of psychology to get inside the head of the underperformer and finally figure out what’s making them tick.

Outline the basics of good performance

First things first, you need to set out your stall and be clear about what you’re all shooting for. There are more than a few occasions when you’ll have left a meeting thinking everyone is up to speed with what you want, only for the canteen to be full of confusion the moment you leave.

To get the best out of everyone, you need to redefine what you expect, so here are three ways you can do it:

  • Create daily, weekly, and monthly targets that are easily quantifiable
  • Emphasize when someone does an impressive job, and use it as a case study for the rest of the team to learn from
  • Come up with a 5-line job description, so everyone knows what’s expected of them

Talk about how you will assist with training needs

Poor performance can often be a great chance to identify gaps in people’s training. The best way to do this is to first ask the employee in question what they’re currently struggling with. Keep it to an informal chat rather than an all-hands meeting, and you’ll find they’re far more likely to open up. Once you’ve taken on board what they have to say, go through their original job description and add in anything else you think they could benefit from.

Approach the top performers in your team to lend support

There will be a stark impact on organizationals goals when you have a chronic under performer onboard — proof that a team really is only as strong as the weakest link. To this end, you need to get the stronger members of the team to step up and provide expert input. They’re far more likely to be seen as equals or peers by the employee you’re trying to help, so ask them for assistance in a way that won’t come across as patronizing or overbearing.

Understand the employee’s backstory, so you can get to know them


There’s always the chance that someone is struggling at work through no fault of their own, and that matters outside the office are having a far bigger impact than even they realize.

Taking the employee to one side in a friendly and casual manner is the best way to approach the issue. It’s all about giving them a platform on which to speak, and making it known that they can come to you whenever they feel the need. Building up a rapport like this isn’t something you should leave until poor performance starts to show itself. Take the time to do it with the entire team, and the results will speak for themselves.

Listen before you speak—don’t just give out orders

Employees want to feel valued, and it’s remarkable how many people switch off the moment they feel like they’re being demonstrated. Whilst you want to avoid putting friendship with your team above all else, you do want to always address them in a way that makes them feel like you’ve listened. Here are three ways you can do it with ease:

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