The Skilled Manager’s Guide to Dealing With Underperformers

You can’t manage someone’s performance; you can only help them manage it themselves

Alex Jones
Published in
9 min readNov 21, 2019


Photo: Tom Werner/Getty Images, modified by Alex

Dealing with someone who isn’t performing at the level they should be is frustrating. It’s stressful. And honestly, it can be scary when it escalates to the point of needing to let someone go. It’s been the hardest part of my job, bar none.

It’s also one of the most important responsibilities that any leader shoulders. But here’s the thing: Our job isn’t to manage performance because frankly, we can’t manage another human’s performance.

Let’s pause for a second and think through how different life would be if we truly could manage how someone else performs, via a snippet from one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons.

Homer: “Are you guys working?”
Team: “Yes, sir, Mr. Simpson.”
Homer: “Could you, um, work any harder than this?”
Team: “Sure thing, boss.”

Well, that was easy! We’re done here…

Okay, so back to reality: Telling people to work harder, faster, or better isn’t an effective tactic. Instead, what we can do is provide clear feedback in a timely manner and support the team members responsible for meeting, if not surpassing, our expectations.

While some performance issues aren’t recoverable, many can be addressed. And when they’re caught early enough, our investment is minimal (assuming the employee is invested in improving).

A bit of context

Just so you know where I’m coming from, here are some of the situations I’ve faced in my career:

  • As a new manager, I’ve had to fire someone I had previously promoted against my boss’s advice. This person lied about me to that same boss while I was sitting right there at the same table. And yet, this was still immensely hard for me. I wanted nothing else than to avoid the situation altogether. (I didn’t.)



Alex Jones
Writer for

I lead multi-disciplinary, globally distributed teams that craft remarkable products for millions of people. I start fires (the good kind).