How to Use Communication and Influence With Low Performers


Here’s something every leader has encountered before – a struggling co-worker who’s falling short of what you know they can deliver. They may be holding up your team’s progress, missing crucial deadlines, or just not putting their heart into their role. 

Whatever the reason, low performance creates an uncomfortable situation in the workplace that we’d all rather not have to deal with. But with the right approach to communicating, I’ve found it’s often possible to get an underperforming co-worker back on track with renewed interest, engagement, and motivation. 

Here are two steps you can use to take to open up a dialogue with someone whose performance is…wanting.

Step 1: Change Your Mindset

Very often, we fall into the trap of focusing on the negative. We might notice that a co-worker isn’t pulling their weight in particular aspect of their role – say Peter has consistently been impatient with his clients. A little concerned, we might start to become more attuned to other things he isn’t performing very well at. 

“Hmmm,” you might think, “Peter’s also been making quite a few errors in his reports…and his forecasts have been late for the past few weeks…”

Without our realizing, a focus on the negative can turn into a vicious cycle, one in which we’re quick to spot Peter’s mistakes, focus on his slip-ups, and thus, overlook his accomplishments.

Before you open up a dialogue with an underperforming co-worker, it’s important to ditch the negative mindset. Try observing their behavior objectively, then ask yourself: What are 10 good things they do well? 

Is Peter a helpful and supportive mentor for your new staff? Is he on time, every time, to all your meetings? Perhaps he suggests creative ideas that benefit the team? When it’s time to talk to your co-worker, you’ll likely find that a fresh, positive perspective sets the tone for productive communication. I’m pretty sure your dialogue will be more constructive and solutions-focused than if you bring up a list of “things that are wrong.”

Step 2: Be Transparent

Say you’ve asked Peter for a moment alone together, and it’s time to start communicating. So how can you get on the same page and move forward together toward a collectively beneficial performance improvement?

First of all, be clear about your goals – with yourself. A discussion about performance should be results-focused, and your ideal outcome should be to find a solution, not confront the other person. In other words, your intention will shape your communication. 

Second, be clear with your conversation partner or co-worker. Let them know why you’re both there, and that you have a shared goal – to bring their performance back up to its usual high caliber. It helps to listen carefully to your colleague and really hear what they have to say. Do they have needs that aren’t being met? Is there something else going on behind their behavior, and that you can help with? 

Conversations about performance rely heavily on situational leadership, and there’s no one “correct” way to communicate throughout a feedback discussion. One of the most useful ways to adapt your style appropriately is to be aware of the four different Leadership Styles within the Sphere of Influence 360: Instruct, Direct, Coach, and Inspire.

you see a hand picking up a person to place him in another conversation. it represents leading people in different situations.
  • Instructing your co-worker involves emphasizing how the specific details of a task or role should be delivered. You communicate how things can be done properly and on time. An Instruct style is about confronting people, holding them accountable, and giving them feedback on their behavior. Arguably, it’s the least appealing part of most a managerial or leadership role. However, it’s the confrontational style that we’d usually, most likely, adopt with a low performer.
  • Directing your colleague entails focusing on end results. Clarify your intentions and discuss expected outcomes. In Peter’s case, this would mean finding a solution and defining a clear framework. How, specifically, could he move toward improved performance? How could you do it together?
  • When you adopt a Coaching style, you take on a role that’s not unlike a mentor or advisor. You motivate, stimulate, encourage, and offer support. Your message, essentially, is “Let me help.” If a conversation about someone’s performance is going well, you might find yourself adopting this style most frequently. 
  • Lastly, an Inspire style is about getting your co-worker involved in your vision for better performance. It might involve relating to the company vision, or why their contribution is important in the first place. 

Most importantly, it’s useful to remember that the two of you are having a dialogue – which takes two. Try to ask for input or help whenever it’s relevant, involving your colleague in your path forward together. For example: “What do you think will work?

Over To You

Of course, there will always be situations where sub-par performance is not fixable. It’s good to give others the benefit of the doubt, but if you’ve tried Steps 1 and 2 to no avail, it might be time to cut your losses. However, I strongly believe you’ll likely find that adopting a positive mindset, helps you start an open, honest conversation and take an adaptive approach to communication. This can be the first step forward in helping a co-worker get back on track. Through dialogue, you can use communication and influence to improve engagement, motivation, and performance.What are your stories about communicating with low performing co-workers? What has worked for you in the past? Share your thoughts with me below!

Nicolien Dellensen

Nicolien Dellensen, Senior Consultant and behavioral specialist and creator and owner of the ’Sphere of Influence 360º’ a comprehensive concept and (360) online tool about interactive dynamics.

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