Managing Underperformance

Marco Ziccardi

Director of Engineering at Doctolib



Managers hold the perfect place in an organization to help their peers better understand their day-to-day well-being. Unfortunately, managers are not born with or given enough training to deal with teammates suffering from mental health challenges - in my case: it was depression. So, what can we do when the team morale is negatively impacted due to one team member? Supposedly, they were slow in their processes, absorbed in their own thoughts, not meeting deadlines, and the worst part was not showing up for work at times. Since we had dependencies between team members, it became a huge problem.

"Managers hold the perfect place in an organization to help their peers better understand their day-to-day well-being."

In addition to that, in a remote environment, meaningful human connection needs effort and it is really hard to achieve. Having to handle situations whereby other team members would come by and ask if this person was working or not was the kind of condition that every manager would dread. Let's say we had 5 engineers in a team, and 1 person was having issues with delivery; it would be 20% of the workforce that was affecting the team morale.

"In a remote environment, meaningful human connection needs effort and it is really hard to achieve."

Here's how I supported the team member:

Actions taken

Acknowledge With Other Team Members

Generally, I kept my discussions and observations private, but at the same time, I did let other team members know that there was an ongoing problem with the person and that we were working to resolve it. If the person did not show up for work or replied to emails and Slack messages, others would misunderstand me as the manager. They might perceive that I may not have set clear expectations for the person, instead of understanding their problem. It was a better idea to be transparent, and that I was working on it.

Talk to Your Teammate, but Do Not Diagnose

I knew my role as a manager, and in that regard, I talked to them - keeping in mind that I am not a psychologist. On the one hand, I had to meet the business needs, and on the other, I had to help others become better employees for the business. With that said, I confronted the person and talked to them about the problem and its impact on their colleagues. However, as they say, actions speak louder than words, and theirs was a knee-jerking reaction. Clearly, they were escaping the conversation and denying to address any of the problems that they had.

Of course, I waited patiently to see their further reactions and their follow-up response. Sad to say, but there was no follow-up, which led me to talk to them again. I wanted to understand their point of view, but to my understanding, I found the person not to be reliable.

Give Them Some Time Off

As a supportive and concerned manager, I asked them to take some time off. I knew that they needed time for themselves since they did not have much focus on their day-to-day tasks. I believed that they needed to be detached from the work environment for a while, which would have given them the chance to think about their problems.

When to Talk to Others

While the person was away, I talked to the HR department about this. Again, I am not a psychologist, and I wanted to be transparent from my end, for which it was necessary to involve a third party to give them some exposure. This could be a complicated move, but if you are at risk of failing or the environment is becoming toxic, it is certainly your responsibility.

Make Them Talk to External Parties

When the person was back from their holiday, I organized a meeting between them and a representative from HR. I had a different type of relationship with the person as they directly reported to me, but it was necessary to get a third party's opinion on this. Also, we were working on raising awareness and fostering a safe environment for everyone. The person was functioning pretty well after coming back from their days off for about a week. Later, we were back to square one.

Set Up Boundaries and Expectations

It is certainly acceptable to have a conversation or two, but at some point, I needed to steer the person towards getting professional help. We set up a "Personal Performance Program", whereby we set up some clear expectations for them. For instance, we set up achievable goals for them to obtain within the next three months. We did not expect them to become one of the organization's top performers, but we wanted them to land somewhere. Not forgetting to explain to them the consequences, in any event, if they had not complied with the goals.

The Outcome: Yet, despite the support, we agreed with them that they needed to focus on their health. Why? We investigated their mental health issues and why they were performing poorly, only to accommodate their needs, but the circumstances were not sustainable anymore. Even the customized Personal Performance Program plan failed in the end because they could. It was extremely sad to let them go after the 5 long months of chaos. But creating a positive work environment and better outcome is what we thrive for and at the end you can have many jobs, but only have one life.

Lessons learned

  • Be transparent about such issues with other team members. It will make the team work better in a cohesive unit. In that regard, of course, don't compromise on the person's privacy.
  • Read the red flags from the beginning. This situation does not occur out of the blue; a person starts showing red flags from a specific point in time. From my experience, one of the first signs was ghosting out and not replying to emails; learn to detect those red flags.
  • As managers, we are problem-solvers, but not from the psychological aspects. We need to ask those people to seek external help and become self-aware of themselves. While trying to help them, we might do more damage, so it's always better to get professional help for these reasons.

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Marco Ziccardi

Director of Engineering at Doctolib

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsFeedback TechniquesCareer GrowthDiversity and Inclusion InitiativesIndividual Contributor RolesEngineering Manager

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