Low Performers: Both Sides of the Coin, Being One and Managing One

difference by goldfishLow performers negatively impact coworkers and companies. No one aspires to be a low performer. Sometimes it just happens to knowledge workers, who are unhappy with their jobs, employers, or lives. How we know if we’re an underachiever at work? If you’re a manager, how to manage one?

According a LeadershipIQ survey, employees say that working with a low performer has made them want to change jobs and decreases their productivity. Few senior executives say their company effectively manages low performers, as middle managers say they feel uncomfortable improving or removing low performers.

Are You a Low Performer?

In this survey, five characteristics define a low performer. Do you have any or all of these characteristics? If you’re a manager, does this sound familiar? The top five responses were as follows, in order of importance” with my commentary:

  1. Negative attitude: been there, done that. Twice. I was unhappy with my job and boss. However, I should have known better than to let my unhappiness bleed into my attitude. Fortunately, I exited the company in the nick of time on both occasions. During the first time, I escaped a bullying boss, landing into a “rebound” job. The second time I just missed three waves of lay-offs, leaving so I could manage a department. Over time, I’m glad I found humility and unlearned my negative attitude at work. Catch yourself in time, before a negative attitude turns into a job killer for you.
  2. Stirs-up trouble: while I didn’t stir up trouble, I mistakenly contributed to trouble when executives started asking me what was wrong with my boss. These executives were trying to build a case to remove on of their peers. There’s nothing worse than being a pawn in someone else’s chess game. Lesson learned? Play nice, don’t gossip, don’t be a pawn, and never stir up trouble.
  3. Blames others: this is a job and career killer. It’s hard to be self-aware enough to acknowledge your part in problems. There’s nothing worse than seeing workers go into CYA mode; it causes distrust in others. No one wants to work with someone who will throw them under the  bus. Why is it hard to workers to admit it to themselves? Instead, be responsible for your part of the process. Hold yourself accountable. Be a team player. And stop blaming others for your performance or actions.
  4. Lacks initiative: it’s one thing to work to live, but not taking initiative? Hmm. No comment.
  5. Incompetence: Peter principle? Unskilled? Not properly trained? I assume that people take pride in their work, wanting to do well in their jobs. I’m always puzzled when some workers are incompetent. I usually look for signs that the hiring manager didn’t screen out the incompetent worker or the worker hadn’t been properly trained for their position.

I hope you aren’t a low performer. Ask people that you trust, if you have any of these five characteristics, and then commit to evolving yourself away from having these characteristics.

How to Manage a Low Performer

What if you’re a manager? What do you do when you have a low performer? How can managers start a dialogue with low performers, as a start to managing their performance? Inc. magazine published “Smart Questions: How to Help An Underachieve” by Jennifer Gill. She recommends six questions that a manager should ask a low performer:

  1. Your performance has slipped. Is something wrong?
  2. Can you describe your job to me?
  3. Do you have what you need to do your job?
  4. Are you adequately trained?
  5. Is something at work preventing you from doing a good job?
  6. When was the last time we had a performance review?

Check out the article what a manager should look for after asking these questions. This is an excellent start. First, we have to understand what’s going on the low performing employee. Of course, after you learn what’s up, then the real work begins in managing the situation.

“Don’t Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out”

What have we learned about low performers? The majority of us don’t want to work with them. We’ll most likely have to manage one or two over time. And we may have to fire them someday. Some low performers can evolve. I’m always cheering for them. I’m a proponent of managing the problem for improvement. I like seeing people change to become more productive and successful. However, some problem employees may not have the self-awareness to change. These employees are bad for business and should be shown the door without ambivalence by the hiring manager or higher ups. Letting low performers linger only hurts productivity and morale of the low performer’s coworkers.


  1. Yet another insightful article. Just one comment on Gill’s recommendation of six questions a manager should ask a low performer. Seems to me that if the manager is asking Question #6, THAT’S primarily a management problem. Hopefully, the manager has a documented ANNUAL performance appraisal of each and every employee; and, hence, the question should be unnecessary…unless of course it’s a lead-in question to suggesting one needs to take place.

  2. Excellent point! Perhaps Gill meant #6 as a lead-in. I’m always amazed that some managers avoid the tough conversations like dealing with low performers or really annoying ones.

    Right now, some managers are at a disadvantage because the recession is forcing headcount freezes. If a manager wants to fire a bad performer or annoying one, then they won’t be able to replace that headcount. This problem leaves them at the mercy of the employer. Not fair.

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