How to transform an underperformer into a TOP PERFORMER

So you’ve hired someone supposedly great and you’re having high expectations, but then he turns out to be “just ok”.  Or worse.

  • He underperforms.
  • He has no passion.
  • He does just barely the minimum of what is needed.

You want your team to deliver top-notch results. World class quality. It’s obvious – he doesn’t share your passion. Even though everything seemed SO right when you were hiring him.

This is, of course, a very frustrating situation. Not only does it make your life more difficult, but it can also have other implications. For example, you’re not likely to get the results you are hoping to get. If you want world class results, you need 100% passion and commitment from everyone involved.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Like this manager who told me lately: “This underperformer is making my life so difficult. I have to work extra to cover up for his poor quality job. And you know… If I’m really honest, I’m afraid I can’t deal with this and I’m a lousy boss. Maybe my boss will see me as incompetent – for hiring the wrong people and not being able to lead my people well. I think my whole team is watching how I deal with this situation – whether I just let it be or do I try something that doesn’t work, or will I be able to solve this situation somehow? The other team members are also suffering because of this underperformer. This puts me on such a pressure… Whatever I do, my actions are also buidling the culture– how do we relate to underperformance in this team? What if I can’t deal with this situation?”

So underperformers can make the lives of the manager and colleagues difficult. Often the underperformer is suffering and miserable himself, too. Because most of us would WANT to do our jobs well.

So what should you do?

Of course, in a situation like this, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. If there was, you’d know it by now. But there are several things you can try.

One powerful way to deal with a situation like this is radical self-exposure.

What the heck does radical self-exposure mean?

Let me explain.

When things get difficult and we’re not sure what to do, we usually try to give a competent image of ourselves. We behave like we’re on top of it. We try not to show hesitation. We try to give a self-confident impression. We try to hide our feelings.

But our brains are very sensitive in detecting emotional cues. People sense our lack of authenticity. Even if we speak and act in a confident way, people detect our insecurity. Our body language and facial expressions reveal us. So people get mixed signals, and it makes them feel uncomfortable. They don’t trust you.

Radical self-exposure means just the opposite. Instead of playing the role of “the competent leader who is always on top of things” and trying to hide your inner doubts, fears, wishes, and emotions, you EXPOSE yourself.

You talk about your inner world honestly – how you feel, what you think and what you wish for. You do not blame anyone else; you just share your own inner world. You let people in on how you feel, what you think and who you really are.

This example illustrates the art of radical self-exposure:

Lisa (the manager) has invited Peter (the underperformer) into a one-on-one discussion. Lisa and Peter have talked earlier, but Lisa has not been able to address directly the underperformance. Peter seems to think everything is fine and he’s doing his job well.

Lisa: “Peter, can I share something important with you. Something that isn’t really nice to hear, but I’d need to share it with you?”

Peter: “Oh? Ok, go ahead.”

Lisa: “ I’m actually quite frustrated. You see, I really would like our team to deliver top-notch results. We are a competent team and we have everything we need to be one of the best teams in our field. We are very passionate about our work in this team. But I’m not really sure where you stand. Somehow I’m thinking about your level of motivation. To be honest, I’m not happy with your performance at the moment. ”

Peter: “Oh… What do you mean? I do everything you ask me to do, right?”

Lisa: “Well, yes. But only what I ask you to do. I’m not sure if you share our passion to be world-class. Many times I have to finish up and patch up your work. Do you remember the project plan I asked you to do last week?”

Peter: “Yes. I finished it on time, didn’t I?”

Lisa: “Yes. And do you think your work was world class?”

Peter: “Well, I think it was ok with the given time frame. Sure I could have worked on it more, but I had to leave.”

Lisa: “Yes, you left and I stayed and worked on your plan. I couldn’t give such a report to our customers. It was not the level of quality I want to deliver to them. So, my worry is that you do not share the level of ambition of our team. I’m afraid that you are satisfied with lower standards. Of course, there are many teams where you can work at that level, even in our organization. But in our team, it’s not possible. When I was recruiting you, I was really convinced of your competence and passion. Now I’m really confused. Where is the passion and quality I saw in you? And how can we bring it back?”

Peter: “Oh, this is quite shocking… I never realized you feel like this.”

Lisa: “I understand this is quite disturbing. And I’m only telling you this because I believe you DO have the passion and competence I saw in you during the recruitment. You know, I need a top player in our team and I’m still hoping you are the one I need. I’d want you to be a central player in this team. It is my wish that in our team we ignite each other, challenge and support each other, bring out the best in each other. And I’d love to see you as part of that. Now, I would really like to know how you feel about this?”

Lisa and Peter went on to discuss several examples – where was it that Peter’s work could be improved, what Lisa meant by world-class work, what was it that Peter would need to do in order to fulfill those expectations. They had several discussions around the topic. Lisa continued sharing openly her thoughts, emotions, and wishes. Peter was quite anxious for a while, but in a few weeks, his motivation started to build up. He started to enjoy his work. His performance improved. In the end, he DID have the passion and competence Lisa had seen in him during the recruitment.


When people are underperforming, they have a reason for it. Sometimes it’s just the fact that they’re not aware of the standards (like in Peter’s case). Other times there are other reasons. With radical self-exposure, you can get to the root of the problem. Once you expose your inner feelings and thoughts skilfully, at least people then know the truth about how you feel. You’re not blaming them but inviting them to a true discussion.

So when dealing with underperformance, clarify to yourself – what do you expect and wish from this person. Then collect concrete examples – where are your expectations not met and what are the consequences of underperformance. Name your emotions about the situation – how does it make you feel. Then have an open, authentic discussion about the situation, sharing  your inner wishes, fears, and emotions.

Radical self-exposure is not the easiest of skills and you have to be sensitive about when to use it and use it skillfully. But I’ve seen many situations where it turns difficult situations around. Instead of hiding your emotions and thoughts, you listen to your inner feelings and TALK about them openly, and you do so in a constructive way. This can be a gateway to an honest, authentic discussion.

/ Jarkko

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