There are very few things more frustrating than watching an employee with real potential never reach it. It's hard to find talented people in a tight job market; once you do, you want to set them free to flourish. But what happens when they don't?

Research suggests turnover costs 1.5 times the person's salary, meaning a failed attempt to incorporate a talented employee results in real money lost. But that equation should calculate 1.5 times the person's salary, plus or minus the team's productivity. That's no small thing: A 2012 study in Personnel Psychology found high performers are 400 percent more productive than average employees.

But that's what happens if the employee doesn't meet her potential and leaves. If she stays, it can get even worse. 2018 research by Randstad US, an employment/recruitment agency for temporary and permanent staffing, found that 53 percent of people looking for jobs didn't feel their managers hired or retained high performers. Keeping a talented person who's underperforming is like trading one potentially high performer for four others. Those who stay will lose motivation; you can say goodbye to your remaining productivity.

Recently, my team revisited our marketing manager role. Work was getting done, but it wasn't moving the needle. After a review, we worked with the manager to revamp processes to align with her skills and desires. The impact was a stronger-than-50 percent increase in traffic to my podcast, "Leaders in the Trenches."

Identify the Root Problem

What you do next has everything to do with the actual problem. If you've been paying attention, you -- and your employee -- can pinpoint where things went wrong.

Is the high-potential employee in the wrong role? When you're hiring, you identify people with the skills, knowledge and approach to succeed in the role. Sometimes, someone with the "right strengths" is capable of doing the job but won't enjoy it. Is your struggling employee excelling at certain parts, like website copywriting, but slogging through others, like graphic design?

Is something getting in the high-potential employee's way? Could your talented employee succeed under different circumstances? Would she be more efficient without three levels of approval? Is Bob in Development not giving her everything she needs because he doesn't see the point of her projects? Do you simply need to buy the software she keeps recommending?

Are there skill or attitude limitations you didn't anticipate? If it seems the high-potential employee exaggerated her sales experience or her knowledge of tool manufacturing, you're dealing with an integrity issue, not fit. If she has the tools to succeed but simply isn't invested or thinking positively, she's in charge of her attitude. In either case, you know what to do.

Get to the Root of It

If you have a talented person in the wrong role or circumstances, you have a few options.

1. Look for a better fit.

While shifting an employee isn't always an option, it's worth considering. If you're in a high-growth period, look at what else you need. Is someone overloaded? Do you want to launch a new product or service but don't have someone to spearhead it? Do you need to remove bottlenecks by empowering one person with duties that have become afterthoughts?

One caution: You don't want other employees to interpret this as "rewarding" bad behavior. Have a clear conversation with the employee about expectations and what needs to change. Likewise, you'll want to talk to your team about why the new role is needed and how it benefits the company.

2. Remove roadblocks.

If the real problem is your team's processes, resources or understanding, attack it head-on. If you've hesitated to buy the tools this role needs, see what you can sacrifice to find the budget. If you're paying a full-time person to tackle the work, you need to invest in the work itself. Hold a team meeting to explain how the role's work will benefit others', and hold employees accountable for helping each other.

Work as a team -- or at least with a process's stakeholders -- to overhaul cumbersome processes. You'll likely find a problem doesn't just impact one employee. The team will also get a better view into how each role bleeds into another, giving them incentive to boost each person's work.

3. Examine relationships.

Think deeply about whether your high-potential employee could thrive under different leadership. Does her current manager understand her work? Would she grow significantly under a particular mentor? Don't hold on to managing her yourself, either, just because you're attached to her project.

A talented employee who should succeed -- but isn't -- shouldn't automatically be considered a lost cause. If her lack of success revolves around role fit, processes or others' understanding, you have options. It's worth investing in a high-potential employee so you can get the ROI you hoped for -- and avoid losing talent.

Published on: Feb 26, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.