Managing Poor Performance

When we think about agile development we talk about the performance of the team and not measuring individual performance.  If we measure individual performance then we drive behaviours which are counterproductive to our overall aims.  For example, one of the best developers I have ever worked with would probably have been viewed as achieving very little if he was measured on the code which he personally delivered because he would spend much of his time mentoring other people and building their skills.  The performance of the team was hugely increased through his activities but individual measures wouldn’t have captured that and worse, may have encouraged him to behave differently.

There is however a problem in this approach.  It is one people raise time and time again.  What do you do if someone in the team isn’t pulling their weight?

Team members really care about this issue.  It can be very problematic when you work in a team with a member who is coasting and for whom peer pressure doesn’t seem to be effective.  It can have a negative impact on motivation and teamwork.  Team members tell us that one of the most important skills of an effective line manager is their ability and willingness to differentiate between high and low performers.  However, managers tell us that one of the most difficult things about their job is managing poor performance.  That’s because the situation is likely to be emotionally charged and highly unpleasant, so many people prefer to avoid it.

If you search on the internet for advice on addressing poor performance you will find lots of articles on how best to fire people and some on formal performance management, but very few on avoiding the situation in the first place or looking at the true causes of the poor performance.  I think this is indicative of part of the problem.  If a manager avoids the difficult conversation for long enough the problem becomes bad enough that they need to do something drastic about it.  That isn’t the employee’s failure – it’s the manager’s.

Treat People as Individuals

My first ever ‘leadership’ role occurred when when I was asked to technically coordinate a project which I was working on.  There were 3 of us in the team and we had always worked well together.  When I was asked to take on the extra responsibility I was happy to do it and continued to have a really good relationship with one of the team members.  However, the other team member would work on anything other than whatever it was that I’d asked him to work on and when he did work on it would do it to low quality and not using our standard approach.  I spent lots of time trying to work out what was wrong with him.  He used to work well within the team and was now deliberately being difficult.  It took me 6 months to realise that the question wasn’t about what was wrong with him but actually about what was wrong with me.  He wasn’t motivated by the same things I was and I was treating him the way I would want to be treated, rather than spending the time to understand him.  It was a very valuable lesson for me so early in my career and it helped me understand that people are different; my preferred management style isn’t the important thing, their preferring working style is.

Address the Causes of Poor Performance

What is causing the poor performance?  It is likely to be either their level of motivation or their ability to do the job.

Motivation

Is the person able to do the work but is lacking motivation?  If so then why?  Is there a problem outside of work which is causing them issues and which you could support them with?  Are they just bored?  Are they feeling ‘over managed’ or that praise from management is insincere?

I worked with an organisation at one time where I would get the most bizarre compliments.  For example, after one meeting which I ran lots of managers came up to me to tell me quite enthusiastically what I good job I had done.  It was just a standard meeting, I hadn’t done anything out of the ordinary.  I found this really odd and random.  I can only think that they’d all been on the same course where they were told to praise people.  Praising people for things which are not special can actually demotivate.  In this example it made me feel that they must have had very low expectations of me if they were impressed that I could run a standard meeting.  Perhaps they thought I was likely to dance naked on the table and were relieved that I hadn’t so praised me for resisting the urge to misbehave?

People are different.  They are motivated by different things.  Many people are intrinsically motivated; they want to do a good job and get pleasure out of doing so.  Others are extrinsically motivated; they do what they need to do to get monetary rewards or praise.  You need to be very careful to understand how people are motivated before trying to address an issue.  You don’t increase an intrinsically motivated person’s performance by promising them a bonus for writing higher quality code.  They are more likely to take it as an insult that you think they write bad quality code now.  In fact, studies have shown that if you reward people for things which they are intrinsically motivated to do then their motivation actually reduces.

Ability

Is the person able to do the job?  Do they have the skills and knowledge which is necessary?  Can they be mentored, coached or trained to address the problem?  They could be trying their hardest to achieve but if they don’t have the knowledge they need then they are likely to fail.  Are you being clear with them about what they need to deliver?

There is a very difficult situation, which I have had to face once in my career, where the person you are dealing with cannot do the role even though they try their hardest.  This is the most difficult thing I have ever had to deal with in my work life, but I have a responsibility to the organisation I work for and to the other team members.  After working on this for a period of time it became clear that the individual was unable to think logically or to solve problems, both of which are core skills for software development.  I had to make the decision to take away his job.  I still feel upset for him whenever I think about the situation.  I blame myself.  There was a major issue with our recruitment process which I should have recognised and dealt with before someone ended up out of work.  Although this was one of the hardest things for me to deal with as a manager my experience doesn’t come close to how difficult the situation was for him.

Address Issues Early

Last year there had been a few issues with one person who reports to me, but they were so minor that I hadn’t brought them up.  This meant that the person had no chance to address them and it wasn’t until we were in their performance review that we had the discussion.  [Let’s leave the debate about performance reviews for another time – just accept for now that I work in an organisation where they are an integral part of the culture.]  I didn’t have any actual examples, just ‘feelings’ about a certain aspect of their behaviour. Following the performance review discussion they addressed the issues in a highly professional and proactive manner.  The performance situation was completely my fault.  If I had raised the issues when I had seen them and been able to give examples the person would have been able to address them rather than repeat them.

This year I have started writing down whenever I see something which I think is great or which I think is less good.  When I have catch ups I discuss these.  It means that people know what I am valuing and what areas I feel could be changed.  It also means that I get to learn the subtleties of what led to the situation, which often allows me to understand what I have seen better.  This has been incredibly successful so far because it is specific and timely.  In fact, I’m planning to ask them to do the same thing for me, so that I can identify small areas of change which would improve the way I work.

7 Steps

  1. Address issues early.
  2. Be clear.
  3. Listen to them.
  4. Treat people as individuals.
  5. Be open to the fact that you may need to change your preferred management style.
  6. Address the causes of poor performance.
  7. Allow people to keep their dignity at all times.

See Also

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About IvanaTheTerrorBull

Techie skater and agile craftswoman with a passion for learning @IvanaTerrorBull