Working with other human beings either as a peer, a partner, or a leader will sooner or later lead to encountering individuals that don’t perform at the expected level, don’t have the skills, don’t have the right attitude, don’t fit the culture, or rub you in the wrong way. In all these situations the results are obvious. You and the team loses focus and productivity plummets. Instead of driving to reach the business goals you are distracted by communication and collaboration issues and by handholding the person and helping him to perform. So how do you effectively deal with underperformers or people who might be great performers but are just not the right fit for the particular role and time?
The simple answer
You get rid of them. It is the most simple and straightforward answer. Yes, it means you have to go through couple of minutes of pretty stressful discussion with the person in question but that is all what is needed. Well, almost. Then you have to spend weeks and months recruiting her replacement, you have to spend another months training, you may need to do her job for some time, and need to communicate with all the stakeholders to explain what happened, why, and what is the plan going forward. In fact you just lost months of productivity and cost you an equivalent of six to twelve months of that person’s salary.
Giving a second chance
The better option is to identify the root cause of the issues and try to fix it. Give the person in question an opportunity to perform or to adjust to the environment. Depending on what is the policy in your company the person goes on performance improvement plan or personal development plan, or any other scheme that clearly defines what the problem is, what steps should be taken and what the desired outcome is.
Of course this needs to be time bound. The most frequently seen issue with this approach is that these initiatives are dragging for months and months with unclear results. One of the candidates to manager role I recently interviewed told me that he has a person on performance improvement plan for 2 years! That is totally unacceptable. The person obviously didn’t perform, productivity of the team suffered, and the manager had to constantly give attention to this person. You should always give the person enough time to improve but not even a minute more.
Truly giving a second chance
If you want to give someone a second chance then you should mean it. It means you should be committed to work with the person on improving, to provide feedback, to rally support of the team, of the peers and bosses. For example, if there is a developer who is not good with databases and it is critically important that he improves in the area it shouldn’t be just you to help him. You need to get buy-in from the team that they too will help him, provide feedback, and educate. If the team is not willing to help, or even will actively work against the person, it is a lost battle from the beginning and wasted time and opportunity.
And no more
Everyone has the right to make mistakes. But everyone has the right to make the same mistake only ones. If the issue repeats even after it was identified and pointed out then your actions needs to be very strict. You cannot allow of repeated unacceptable behavior. You see this all the time. Person gets on performance improvement plan, is worried for his job, so for a brief period of time truly improves. Only to relapse back to poor performance as soon as he feels the danger is behind him. This then leads to people being on improvement plans every couple of months when in fact they shouldn’t be part of the team anymore.
Impact on the team
You hired smart people. They can spot underperformers and bad cultural fits. And they watch both them, and you. Your actions will have huge impact on the culture you are creating. If people see that underperformers are tolerated (sometimes even rewarded with bonuses) then the message sent is clear “You don’t need to try too hard to be rewarded.” This leads to culture of mediocrity. Truly performing teams are able to identify bottlenecks and either fix them fast, or remove them altogether.
Impact on the individual
It sounds like a cliché but there is some truth in it. It is in everyone’s interest (even the poor performer) to remove the bad apple from the team. I like the concept of “sweet spot”. Under this concept everyone should have a job that fits his or her skills, attitudes, strengths, that stretches them and allows to grow. Being the right person for the job (at the time) is just really critical. You can read more on this in You’ve Got The Right Guy… In The Wrong Job. If things don’t work out not only the team suffers but also the person in question has a miserable life. She tries hard (hopefully), but things are not improving. It is not healthy to be in a demoralizing situation like this for too long. Saying good bye to each other and allowing the underperforming employee try her luck in other team/employer is in the long-term the best strategy even for her.
And keep in mind that it is not just about hard skills, or ability to perform a particular task. It is about being the right fit for the position at the time in question. This is very critical in small fast growing teams. Someone who may have been a great performer when he was the only developer on the team may struggle when the team grows to twenty people. Even though the job is essentially the same the skills called upon has shifted. Communication and collaboration is suddenly more important than it used to be. And the same goes in the other direction. A successful manager who lead teams of hundreds of people may struggle when put to a role of hands-on management of five individuals in a start-up environment.
Question of trust
And it is not only about performance. It is also about good fit with the team on personal level. Call it a good chemistry. If the approach to solving particular task is just widely different, if the cultural expectations are not aligned, if the core values, or personal goals are in clash you have a problem. The problem is called “trust issue”. Regarding how great your employee or your boss is. If you just don’t trust him there is no way you can work successfully together. Mistrust on your part will be very quickly seen by that person and most likely by other people around both of you. This will damage the culture, the morale, and ultimately lead to low performance.
How do you fix trust issue that is not based on any particular hard facts but it is just a question of bad chemistry between two people or feeling that the other party may have some hidden agenda damaging to you? Well there is no easy way around it. My suggestion would be just to put all cards on the table and have a very honest discussion with the person about what you see, why you don’t trust him, understand how he feels and that there are only two ways out of this. First, you increase communication to daily basis and at this open level in attempt to fix the trust issue, essentially getting to know each other better, understand the drives, values, and motivations. The only other option is to admit you will never trust each other and just agree to depart. The one solution that shouldn’t be an option, though most frequently used, is to continue to work together with the mindset “I don’t trust him. I need to check everything he does. I need to watch my back. And I will complain about him to whoever will listen.”
As always when it comes to leading others there are no simple recipes or clear steps to follow that would lead to success. Each situation is different and that is why leadership is more of an art than science. The only real guiding principle you should follow is to have the good of the company, the team, and the individual in mind. And whatever you decide to do you should be always respectful. When your focus is on helping others and respecting them as individuals you should be able to help them realize where their fortunes are. If you give up on good solution before you start the failure is ensured.
How many chances are you willing to give to underperforming employees and how do you ensure you are actually really giving them a chance?
Photo: © Andy Dean / Dollar Photo Club