Sooner or later, every project manager will encounter a Poor Performing Team Member who is just not cutting the mustard. They may be a once good team member whose performance has fallen off or a new employee who is failing to meet expectations. I’ve had to deal with Poor Performing Team Members on several occasions, and although for me the experience was always unpleasant, having the situation resolved was worth the investment. In a couple of cases, employees who were offered multiple opportunities to correct their performance but failed to were let go. And happily, in other cases, employees were able to recognize and improve their performance deficiencies with effective encouragement and coaching. If you manage people, it’s a reality that a Poor Performing Team Member awaits you at some time. Project Manager Skills Main Page
The natural human tendency for problems such as a Poor Performing Team Member is to pretend it doesn’t exist or will get better on its own. But neither response benefits your project and will eventually harm it. As a project manager, one of your responsibilities is to identify when a performance problem exists. This person you once believed in now threatens the health of your project and you must act promptly to limit the damage their poor performance may inflict. When the day comes that you find yourself in this situation, if you follow a deliberate, thoughtful process you may find the actual experience to be much less daunting than you imagined.
Assess the Poor Performing Team Member Situation
First, keep your radar on all the time. You can’t deal with a problem by wishing you didn’t have it. So through your own observation, customer or team feedback, or unsatisfactory deliverables, be open to recognizing and confirming that you do have a Poor Performing Team Member.
Assess the situation as best you can. Are there obvious indicators of the root problem, such as whether it is a motivation vs. an ability issue? Gather clear indicators of the problem, such as failure to meet deadlines or product quality, unexcused absences, inappropriate behavior, etc. You need to have and document concrete examples of failure to meet performance expectations or job requirements.
Confront the situation promptly. Most performance issues don’t resolve on their own but worsen over time. You must meet with the employee without delay (one-on-one, if within organizational guidelines) to discuss your concerns with their performance. There are several fairly critical factors to be considered in this step:
• Be positive. Convey your concern, rather than your displeasure. After all, you both have an issue: the employee’s performance does not support retention, and you have a productivity issue you have to address. Fixing the problem is in both your best interests.
• Go over your evidence. Rather than arguing whether the problem is real or not, the concrete examples of performance shortfalls you gathered let you focus on what to do about it.
• Whose problem is it? You mustn’t assume that the problem is the fault of the employee. Through your dialogue with the employee, you need to find out whether the problem is originating with personal issues (family, health, etc.), work-related issues (job skills, a change in the task, conflicts with coworkers, task management, etc.), or external factors neither of you control (regulatory interference, resource availability, suppliers, employment conditions, etc.). This step is clearly the most important in terms of defining a “get well plan.” In my experience, understanding the root cause of poor performance is a great relief to both parties. That’s because in most cases, a path forward can be quickly determined and a partnership formed to make things right.
Create and Monitor a Performance Improvement Plan
As a project manager, your job is to achieve your project’s objectives. And to do that, each team member must meet theirs. You and the poor performing team member must agree to specific, measurable performance improvements. All the factors that contribute to those goals must be supported, including any for which you may be responsible. These may include necessary training, process improvements, resources, HR assistance, priority-setting, and so on.
Projects almost always operate on a timeline, and so must performance milestones. Be sure that you and the employee both understand what the performance improvement metrics are in both substance and time. Both of you must agree that your expectations are reasonable and fair. Your management “deliverables” that make performance improvements possible must be part of this equation.
As the project manager, you will monitor and measure progress against the improvement plan. Acknowledge progress and provide encouragement. As the employee’s performance improves, provide feedback and advice. If the employee believes that you have faith in their recovery, he or she will be much more likely to keep reaching for the next rung.
Evaluate Compliance with Performance Improvement Plan
You must make the final determination. Did your plan succeed or has the team member’s response fallen short? You and your HR department will likely be involved in making this final judgment together and it must be as objective as possible. An employee who, for whatever reason, cannot meet the job requirements must be replaced for the sake of the project. Although it is difficult, if you have been deliberate and objective, you will find arriving at this decision something you can do without self-doubt.
A final message: In one case where I followed this process and still could not rectify the situation, the employee reached me months later to thank me for my sincere but failed attempt to stimulate a satisfactory work ethic in him. Being fired, he said, was the wake-up call he needed to see past the false impression he had that he was indispensable. He now views his new job as a privilege he re-earns every day.