How to Deal With Underperformance

inc. magazine
Mark Zuckerberg speaking about underperformers
Mark Zuckerberg's Plan to 'Turn up the Heat' to Weed Out Underperformers is Bad Leadership

Mark Zuckerberg has warned staff Facebook will be 'turning up the heat' to weed out underperformers who don't meet certain KPIs. By raising expectations and having even more aggressive goals, he thinks some employees might decide to leave on their own. That's bad leadership.

As a leader, you cannot only focus on hiring and retaining great talent. You must also let go of underperformers. But you will not be able to hire great talent in the first place if you fire team members ruthlessly or force them to leave by 'turning up the heat'. Great talent wants to work for great leaders. And great leaders lead with integrity also when it comes to saying goodbye to team members who are not a good fit (anymore).

If you want to be a good and effective leader, you tackle underperformance professionally by taking the following four steps:

1. You create realistic goals from the outset.

Together with your team, you develop goals that your team members can realistically achieve. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious and setting challenging goals, but there is no sense in setting unrealistic goals or setting the bar even higher for underperformers.

2. Before firing people, you talk to them.

If team members underperform, you talk to them. You ask them why they underperform. You actively listen to what they have to say. You are empathetic and try to figure out the root cause for their underperformance. If you are an effective leader, you have created an environment of trust, in which your team members feel psychologically safe and share with you why they struggle.

3. You help underperformers improve or find them more suitable roles.

If the root cause for their underperformance can be remedied, you do not immediately fire underperformers. Instead, you help them improve or find them roles that suit them better. By helping underperformers improve or finding them more suitable roles, you encourage other team members to also share with you and the rest of the team the mistakes they have made and the help they need. The entire team performance improves.

4. Only if your help is fruitless, you let go.

If the underperformers continue to underperform despite your assistance to improve, you eventually let go. You know that keeping team members around who constantly underperform just drags everybody else down. As the saying goes, 'one bad apple spoils the bunch'.


Building a strong team includes hiring great talent, retaining great talent, and also letting go of talent who is not a good fit (anymore). Saying goodbye to team members is often tough, but it is sometimes the right thing to do. You just have to do it with respect. 

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