8 Shrewd Tips For Research Managers With Under-Performing Staff

In universities, research is one of the primary areas of focus.

Therefore, an under-performing researcher can cause a significant impact on the university’s reputation, funding, and research output. Successfully managing an under-performing researcher is critical, and it requires a strategic and objective approach that considers the interests of the researcher and the university. 

The following 8 tips can help university managers successfully transform an under-performing university researcher.

Tip 1. Identify the cause of under-performance

Before taking any action, it is essential to understand the underlying cause of the researcher’s under-performance.

This process requires objectivity, sensitivity, and professionalism. The reasons for under-performance may vary from personal issues, lack of resources or support, health problems, or lack of motivation. Therefore, research managers must undertake a holistic approach that involves consultations with the researcher, colleagues and department heads.

Tip 2. Establish open communication channels

It is important to establish open communication with the under-performing university researcher.

This will provide the opportunity to discuss the issues that are causing the under-performance. It is important to have an open and honest conversation to identify the underlying reasons for the under-performance. This will help the manager to develop a plan to address the issues.

Tip 3. Set clear expectations

Setting clear expectations is crucial for managing an under-performing university researcher.

Expectations should be clear, specific, measurable, and achievable. It is good practice to set SMART objectives. The expectations should be developed collaboratively between the administrator and the researcher.

The researcher should be aware of what is expected of them and the timeline for achieving these expectations.

Tip 4. Provide additional support

Providing additional support can help the under-performing university researcher to improve their performance.

The manager can provide access to resources such as training, mentorship, and funding. This can help the researcher to develop new skills and knowledge, which can help to transform their research output.

Tip 5. Develop a performance improvement plan

A performance improvement plan (PIP) is a document that is developed to help the under-performing university researcher to restore their performance.

The PIP should be developed collaboratively between the administrator and the researcher and make use of the SMART objectives developed earlier. The plan should also have a review and monitoring mechanism to track progress and adjust goals accordingly.

Tip 6. Consider disciplinary action

If all other options have been exhausted, disciplinary action may be necessary.

The disciplinary action should be consistent with the university’s policies and procedures and be proportionate to the severity of the under-performance.

It is advisable to ensure that all of the proceeding stages have been completed in a comprehensive way before embarking upon disciplinary action. You may need to consult with your Human Resources department for advice.

Tip 7. Create a supportive work environment

Creating a supportive work environment is important for managing an under-performing university researcher.

As a manager you should strive to provide a work environment that is conducive to research, collaboration, and innovation. This includes access to funding, equipment, personnel, and support services such as libraries, IT services, and administrative services.

You should also recognise and reward excellence in research, teaching, and service through regular positive feedback, public praise (where appropriate) and support for opportunities for the individual to continue with their development, such as secondments for example.

Tip 8. Documentation and accountability

Managers must maintain proper documentation of the researcher’s progress, performance, and achievements.

The documentation should be objective, factual, and based on evidence, and it should also be transparent, accessible, and consistent with the university’s policies and procedures.

The researcher should be held accountable for any objectives that they agree with their manager.


In summary, managing an under-performing university researcher can be a challenging task. First, it is important to identify the underlying reasons for the under-performance as this will help the manager to work with an individual to develop a plan to address performance issues successfully.

Research managers should provide the necessary support to the under-performing university researcher to help them improve their performance.

It is essential that research managers establish clear expectations and develop a performance improvement plan to track progress.

In some cases, disciplinary action may be necessary, but this should be a last resort.

Creating a supportive work environment can also help to prevent under-performance and promote productivity.

By following these tips, research managers can effectively manage under-performing university researchers and improve institutional reputation, funding, and research outputs.