How to Help an Underperforming Employee

Danjue Li

Engineering Director at Google



For many first-time managers, one of the biggest challenges is how to deal with their underperforming employees. Lacking experience, they would struggle to identify what caused underperformance and would often take symptoms and treat them as causes. Moreover, they would have a hard time balancing their project commitments and their concerns for their reports’ growth.

Recently, I went again through the too well-known situation. An engineer who was not my direct report (but I was nevertheless responsible for them) was assigned to a high-profile project. We realized over time that they were frequently missing deadlines and not meeting the requirements. Besides, this person had difficulty being open and accepting constructive criticism from people on the team.

Actions taken

I guided my direct reporting manager throughout the process of helping their underperforming employee. I clustered my advice into four groups:

Setting up regular meetings
Though the person in question was not my direct report, I was keen to help out with my extensive experience in the matter. For starters, I suggested my reporting manager introduce weekly meetings and better understand the challenges the person was facing and use these meetings to learn what was causing underperformance and how it could be addressed.

Aligning expectations
The regular meetings’ first goal was to establish whether requirements and expectations were set clearly and whether the underperforming employee had received sufficient and adequate support to complete their tasks. We would make sure that there were transparency and mutual understanding of what success looks like.

Tracking performance
We also decided to leverage our agile processes and the two-week cadence to biweekly review the person’s sprint deliveries. We would discuss what they delivered within that sprint, dissecting problems and challenges that were particularly taxing.

Running the review process
During the review process, we would assess if the situation got improved during the reporting period. We would also do 360-degree feedback and send out surveys to people working most closely with the person. We would use that feedback as talking points during the performance discussion.

Usually, the whole process of helping an underperforming employee would last one quarter. In most cases, we would set up expectations and review results quarterly, and encourage all managers to have (bi)weekly one-on-ones with their reports. We would use sprint discussions to address ongoing challenges biweekly. If the performance wouldn’t improve a couple of springs in a row, then we could address the problem in one-on-one meetings. If there weren’t any noticeable improvement within one quarter, we would involve HR and place the person into a formal Performance Improvement Plan.

Lessons learned

  • Expectations should be set up clearly from the very beginning. Often people tend to make assumptions that are preventing them from reaching alignment and mutual understanding.
  • A manager should nurture his or her empathy. They should try to collect different information from various standpoints and synthesize them into a problem description. It is particularly helpful when, as a manager, you need to identify the root causes of underperformance and address them accordingly.
  • By their very nature, performance conversations are uncomfortable, but we should take the most constructive approach to them. Your report should clearly understand those conversations’ purpose -- they should help them get back to the expected performance and achieve their potential without hasty judgments or condemnation. You should also create a psychologically, safe environment that will allow a person to open up and acknowledge your good intentions.

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Danjue Li

Engineering Director at Google

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationLeadership TrainingPerformance ReviewsFeedback TechniquesCareer GrowthIndividual Contributor RolesAgile, Scrum & KanbanTeam & Project ManagementDiversity & Inclusion

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