HR SOS: What to do when you have an underperforming manager

23 October 2017 -

Bad Performance

There are two ways to deal with an underperforming manager, find out which one works best for you

Guest blogger Margo Manning

In my varied career in management I have worked with many managers whose engagement styles can usually be categorised under the good, the bad or the downright ugly. From personal experience, there are a plethora of reasons why a manager may be underperforming.

In one of my first roles in training, I worked for an exceptionally nice yet underperforming manager who I never once witnessed get annoyed. He was calm and always supportive – sometimes too supportive. He was forever telling us how great his team was; how the feedback we received was fantastic. He would refute negative feedback.

Before long I became unsure whether I was genuinely doing a good job as the feedback from my manager was always amazingly positive. For me there was no learning from that role. Work often felt like a social gathering with no real direction.

A manager must understand you will not please everyone all the time, so don’t try if you want a performing team. It will only lead to pleasing no one. Feedback is important, as it gives you a benchmark to improve upon.

I was very grateful to have met my nice yet underperforming manager; I was not so thankful to leave the role with no tangible new skills or challenging tasks to add to my CV.

Having worked for such a nice manager, my next was a real shock to the system. There was no support and I was held responsible for everything, even external forces I had no control over.

For him it was all about the task and not the people.

It is important to acknowledge managers are human - you cannot expect them to be perfect, they have the same problems as everyone else.

It will be very unlikely to make it through your career without encountering an underperforming manager, knowing how to deal with them will put you in good stead when you find yourself in the inevitable situation. Luckily, there is a simplistic two-category approach you can take: capability and motivation.


An underperforming manager has an incapability to fulfill their role. One simple solution is to provide the necessary training and technical development to enable the manager to carry out the role effectively.

In the cases where a lack of training is not the issue, additional training wastes a business’s resources. A lack of motivation is regularly the cause of an underperformer, careful and steady intervention may be required.


A manager’s motivation is key as to whether they are likely to underperform.

To ascertain a manager’s motivation, communication is vital. Sitting down with your manager and taking the time to ask questions and listen to the manager’s thoughts can help get to the root of their demotivation – this could take more than one conversation.

Acting as soon as you see a dip in a manager’s performance will help nip the problem in the bud. Money is often regarded as the primary motivator for any employee, manager or not, but this is not the case.

Yes, money is an important factor for most managers but frequently their main motivational goal is intrinsic. This can range from wanting to make a difference to the organisation through making a great initial impression to achieving long-term business success.

An underperforming manager may feel unsupported from more senior managers who tend to sit back and let them find their feet, leaving the manager lost with no real sense of direction. Consequently, their motivation will wane, impacting productivity and their leadership skills – managers need to be nurtured.

Anything from a monetary bonus, award or a simple thank you, will work motivational wonders.

Managers tend to be motivated by career progression, if you take a manager under your wing and help them reach the next step this could improve their productivity considerably. A realistic career progression plan with no empty guarantees can act as a formal document that record a manager’s role’s requirements and goals. It will measure their success, providing a clear plan for the future.

Margo Manning is a leadership coach and author of The Step Up Mindset for New Managers (Panoma Press). In the last 15 years, Margo has been delivering talks as one of the UK’s top Leadership and Management Coaches and Facilitators. Margo is the architect of the 3:2 Management Model and subsequent 3:2 Management Development Programme that is delivered and adopted within many businesses, large and small, nationally and internationally.

She has worked, and continues to work, with new managers through to senior managers in companies such as Goldman Sachs, Hobart Lovells, Brunswick Group, Tower Hamlets Homes, Aon, Balfour Beatty, Kantar and many more.

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