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6 Strategies for Managing Underperforming Team Members at Your Fitness Studio

When a studio owner finds that a staff member is not performing as expected and required, it's imperative for managers to take action quickly before the failings pull down more staff members and the studio in general. 

Not every hire works out. It happens in every industry, and fitness is no exception. It's inevitable that studio owners will one day be faced with the dilemma of how to handle a team member who is not pulling his weight.

When this occurs, the time is past to dwell on the past. Sure, they might have simply been a "bad hire." Or perhaps management changes themselves caused a change in the chemistry or group dynamic. Or maybe something's going on outside of work that's impeding success. But the important thing now is to fix the problem.

Here then, are six rules to help:

1. Clarity of expectations. Before you can hammer the employee, first take a look at the performance model that was established when that employee was hired. Was it clearly articulated? Was it in writing? Did the employee understand and confirm in writing?  If the answer to any of these questions is "no," then some self-examination is necessary, in general, and a much greater degree of leniency should be shown the underperforming employee. Then you'll need to make the appropriate changes so that everybody is on the same page regarding expectations.

Simplicity is almost always the best policy.

2. Is the plan realistic? I once worked for a publisher who hired an advertising salesman. The salesman was hungry, needed the job and gladly accepted the modest retainer with a significant commission and bonus structure. He was eager, attentive and effective. Sales improved. Everybody should have been happy.

Problem was, the numbers didn't add up. Despite several glorious quarters of improved performance, the salesman didn't see the improvement in his paycheck that he thought would be there. He was well liked. He was doing a good job by all measurements, but the reward was not there.

When he checked his compensation plan, it turned out he was being paid exactly as promised. The plan itself was stacked against him. When his efforts to renegotiate the deal fell on deaf ears—"a deal is a deal"—his attitude changed, he did not feel incentivized and his performance suffered.

There's a lesson here on both sides. For everybody to win, fairness must reign.

3. Make sure it's measurable. Subjectivity is the enemy of many employment agreements. Performance is always best understood if it is quantifiable or at least tied to measurable outcomes. Sales is relatively easy in this regard, but almost all studio functions can be tied to retention, class size or revenue per client.

It's also important to understand if the problem employee is an isolated situation or if others are experiencing similar issues. If the problem is systemic, it may be more about your systems and less about the employee. This creates an additional level of complexity, if the underperforming employee views his treatment as inconsistent with others who (in his view) are similarly underperforming.

Measurability is one of the best methods of diffusing this dilemma.

4. Don't leave him hanging. Just like a new member of a health club needs constant attention when they first join, so too does a new employee. Hiring him and pushing him into the deep end without a structured means of ensuring things are progressing properly is a recipe for disaster.

Weekly or semi-monthly progress meetings for a new employee will be well worth the time and effort to ensure he's headed in the right direction. Plus, it will keep him motivated and a more motivated hire means a more engaged team member. Although such engagement need not be as often for the more established employee, a monthly (at a minimum) check in conveys the message that you care and want to see him succeed.

5. Does everybody understand the consequences? The results of performance, good or bad, must be understood. More money is easily understood, of course, but there is an abundance of non-financial rewards that can be considered such as title, working conditions, career advancement and professional development.

Consequences of outstanding performance are easily dealt with, although it's important to ensure they are appropriate for the achievement and consistent throughout the company.

Consequences of underperformance can range widely. At one end of the spectrum might be simple discussion of the problem and additional coaching toward improvement.  At the other end, especially if in the case of a multiple offender, could be termination.

This is where the skilled manager must shine. Determining the potential of the underperforming employee is more art than science. If the employee's actions (or inactions) are disruptive to other staff or clients, the decision is likely easier than if he or she is well liked inside the studio.

6. Remember Yoda. Effort, while certainly an important part of any successful endeavor, can be misleading. Strong effort in the wrong direction, even if well meaning, can lead to nowhere. It's like digging a hole in the wrong location. Great hole. Going nowhere.

Or as Yoda so famously said, "Do or do not… there is no try."


Chuck Leve is a 40-year veteran of the fitness industry and a developer of fitness industry associations. He serves as the executive vice president of business development for the Association of Fitness Studios (AFS). He's been involved in the creation and development of some of the most successful trade associations in the history of the fitness industry. For more information about AFS, visit


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