All Articles Leadership Management What to do when a high-performing employee seems off their game

What to do when a high-performing employee seems off their game

14 entrepreneurs offer advice on what to do when a strong employee suddenly drops off in performance.

6 min read



The Young Entrepreneur Council is an invite-only organization composed of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. YEC has also launched BusinessCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses. Read previous SmartBrief posts by YEC.

If you enjoy this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mails for entrepreneurs and HR.

Q: What is the first thing you should do when you notice that a usually great-performing employee seems off his or her game?

1. Pull them in to talk

Early intervention is key. The last thing you need is for an off day to develop into a work funk. Maintaining a casual, friendly relationship with employees is a great way to keep your interpersonal radar on point. Even just noticing that someone is feeling down might be enough to get the ball rolling again. — Tim Chaves, ZipBooks Accounting Software

2. Lead with compassion

When a star performer on my team seems to be off their game, my first action is open communication and genuine concern. I’ve learned to never make assumptions about someone’s personal state. As a leader, when I show a teammate I truly care about them and that being off for a time period is OK, they usually open up and allow me to help. It’s often something simple and easily rectified. — Daniel Reilly, B2X Global

3. Be a human being first

It’s important to approach the person with genuine concern for his/her well-being first — not a concern over job performance. Do not ask for personal details they may not want to share. Rather, acknowledge that he/she doesn’t seem like themselves recently (specifically — down, distracted, tense, etc.), asking if it’s something outside of work or an internal job issue, and how/if you can help. — Lindsey Groepper, BLASTmedia

4. Check for burnout

It’s rare to find an employee that can fire on all cylinders all the time. When I notice one of my star team members isn’t performing as well as they usually are, I ask them some questions about their workload and how they’re feeling. Usually, these bottlenecks can be explained by a feeling of stagnation that can be alleviated by switching things up a little. — Bryce Welker, CPA Exam Guy

5. Focus on the big picture

We do everything we can to stay focused on what we call “rocks” — the big, game-changing goals that really move the needle. When employees prioritize these goals, they’re able to make direct impact on the company, which can be highly motivational. I encourage everyone to fill their days with work that makes an impact. — Lisa Curtis, Kuli Kuli Inc.

6. Have a heart-to-heart

Employers are often afraid to talk to their employees about what may be bothering them when they notice something is off. They fear getting too close to the employee and being vulnerable. The best way to see what’s going on is to pull them into a room, let them know you’ve noticed something is off and ask them what’s on their mind. Make sure you keep it confidential and let them open up to you. — Dan San, Meural

7. Hold space

As a founder, I view my role as casting vision, setting the course, supporting my team and cultivating leaders. Everyone is off their game some days. It is my job to make sure everything is OK. I support their direct manager in finding quiet one-on-one v where they can ask what is going on in their lives in a safe way. Most times this is all it takes for an employee to share what is going on. — Jennifer Mellon, Trustify

8. Be direct and transparent

I encourage organizations to practice radical transparency. When a usually great-performing employee seems off his or her game, I ask him or her directly and transparently, “You are a high performer who is valuable to the work our company does. But I sense that you’re off your game lately and I want to check in to see that hopefully, I’m wrong about that. If not, how can I help?” — Robert J Choi, RJC & Company, Transformation Engineers

9. Make sure they have the right tools

Find out if they are missing any tools or introductions to make their job easier. If they still seem off their game you can have them download a time management tool and see the parts of the job they are slacking off on. Then, laser focus on those parts and see how you can help. — Syed Balkhi, OptinMonster

10. Determine the issue and resolve it

As an entrepreneur, I’ve had my fair share of employees who have been “off” due to a variety of problems. The first thing that I like to do is find out whether he/she is having problems. If so, then I am compassionate and understanding and will offer limited PTO so he/she can resolve the problem. I find that if I am understanding of my employees, they will be open and honest with me. — Kristin Marquet, Creative Development Agency, LLC

11. Take a learning moment

Take a moment to learn more about them and what they may be going through. Everyone has personal lives and as a founder you have to respect that these team members are giving up most of their lives to work at your company. The best founders I have worked with are also the most understanding founders. The more you understand someone, the better your relationship will be with that person. — Sweta Patel, Silicon Valley Startup Marketing

12. Look in the mirror

The interesting thing about top-performing employees is that generally speaking, when you believe that they are falling short of expectations the problem could easily be you rather than them. Before approaching an employee that you feel is not performing up to snuff, make sure that your expectations are in line before creating an issue where one does not really exist. — Ryan Bradley, Koester & Bradley, LLP

13. Pry and pry again

Pry a little, not too much, to obtain an answer. Try asking indirect questions to get to the bottom of the source of the issue — it may be a personal issue in someone’s life or it may be an issue with the job, and sometimes the issue may be YOU, so be open minded and detach from any projection of the problem. — Matthew Capala, Alphametic

14. Listen to their ideas

Many times, great employees will start to get bored with the routine of doing the same thing day in and day out. This makes them start to lose their passion. You can fix this by listening to their ideas and inviting them to meetings where they get the recognition for the idea. Make them feel heard and help them be seen in the company as the asset that they are. — Chris Christoff, MonsterInsights