Chances are good that you've used the word "underperformer" at work before.
Stop doing that, bestselling author and leadership expert Simon Sinek said earlier this month at the 2023 World Business Forum summit.
Most people's definition of an underperformer is far too loose, said Sinek. When asked how to deal with people who are struggling at work, he summed up his advice into three words: give them grace.
"Underperformance is sometimes obviously a condition of the people we hire. Of course, we [might] hire poorly, and sometimes we make mistakes," he said. "[But] sometimes, underperformance is a condition of the work environment that they're in."
And once someone gains that label, it sticks — whether they deserve it or not.
"We're all guilty of this," said Sinek, adding: "What ends up happening is, all we do is think about them and treat them as an underperformer. All we do is notice the things that they get wrong … correcting minor things over and over and over again, to the point where we completely destroy their confidence."
Here's his advice for what to do instead.
Instead of "creating a narrative" that someone's underperformance is a "character flaw," use positive reinforcement to help keep them focused on future improvements, Sinek suggested.
"Positive reinforcement is so much more powerful than catching them doing things wrong," he said. "It's also OK to express that you expect a lot of your people. It's OK to say, 'We as an organization can do better than we have been doing.' And I think it's incumbent on all of us to help each other, and push further, and push harder."
The concept isn't new: In a 2013 TED Talk, leadership expert Mike Robbins referenced University of Berkeley data, which found that 23% of employees who feel recognized at work — and 43% of people who feel appreciated — perform better than those who don't.
If you're the boss of someone who's struggling, you might want to offer them coaching while rewarding them for their strengths, rather than dwelling on their weaknesses. Firing them should never be your first thought, Sinek noted.
"The only time, for me, that somebody should be asked to leave the company is if they proved themselves to be uncoachable," he said. "If there's no willingness to learn whatsoever."
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