Written By Tim Yeomans

Published on February 14, 2023


Few if any people are hired with the expectation that they will underperform. Most team members have no desire to be labeled with such a moniker, and there are even fewer leaders that wish to spend their time carrying through with punitive steps leading toward termination.

Unmet expectations can derive from many sources, and when all of the parties involved have resigned themselves to their assumptions, there is very little chance that the situation will be satisfactorily improved.

Taking Proactive Steps

One proven answer to this problem is the “5 formative steps” for underperforming team members.

These are five clear steps that a leader can communicate and employ, which can be readily observed, measured, and evaluated. These steps place the onus on the underperforming team member by clearly setting forth what is expected of them moving forward.

The reason these steps are more effective than the leader simply voicing displeasure, is that the team member is given the formula by which they can be successful.

A leader has the responsibility to clearly illustrate to the team member what success looks like and how performance will be measured. While difficult for many leaders to hear, the first and most important parts relating to team member success reside with themselves.

The leader must first be the example of what it means to:

  • Show up
  • Produce
  • Document
  • Deliver
  • Communicate

In explaining the first expectation, “Show up,” to the team member, specific reference to the expected parameters — around time management, planning, tracking responsibilities, the status of tasks and projects, as well as participating in the workplace with a positive attitude and enthusiasm — must be clearly explained.

As we know, the strongest reinforcer of these expected behaviors and actions is a leader who sets a positive example that can be emulated.

“Produce,” the second expectation, is difficult to measure if left to interpretation. Clear targets with regard to the volume and quality of work are the underpinning for success with this expectation — setting goals, timelines to be met, and so on — are essential to help the team member grow and meet expectations.

Leaders who dig in from time to time and demonstrate how production targets can be achieved are more likely to see positive changes in team member performance.

The third expectation, “Documentation,” involves properly archiving and saving work that can be used for several future purposes. It is a record of the work produced but also serves as a basis and template for future work to be initiated. We all do more when we have a successful plan to follow. Documentation also provides a place for reference and for verification. In the case of the underperforming team member, it will be their repository of information documenting how they are meeting and exceeding expectations.

As a leader, the practice of using email as a tool by which “records of conversations” are sent confirming agreements or shared understandings is a powerful example of how documentation is integral to long-term success.

Fourth is “Delivery. It is one thing to engage in the work and even complete a task, it’s something entirely different to make certain that the product is delivered, either internally or externally, in a manner that it will be most effectively utilized. Delivering instills confidence in the receiver that they are receiving what is expected.

Delivery is often a place where the person producing the outcome sheds the responsibility for its successful use or implementation. A leader models the way by setting the example of seeing projects through to fruition.

The final step that an underperforming team member must master and internalize is the need to “Communicate as the final act of performance. Communication is not an exercise in self-promotion or aggrandizement on the completion of a project. It is, rather, an act of follow-up and double-checking on the satisfaction of the recipient. It also sends the message of genuine caring and interest in the recipient having success with the product.

Help employees help themselves

When team members are able to understand, internalize, and make actionable steps of “Show up,” “Produce,” “Document,” “Deliver,” and “Communicate,” it is very likely that their work performance will no longer be in question.

And when leaders clearly impart these expectations and support them through instruction and through their own example, the likelihood that the team members they supervise will be unclear about the expectations surrounding their role will be greatly minimized.