Motivating a Quiet, Underperforming Engineer

Ramez Hanna

Leadership consultant at Eneba



Shortly after taking on a new team, I noticed that one engineer was underperforming. We'll call him Jeff. Jeff was the newest member of the team, he was a senior engineer with over 10 years of experience, and was studying for his PhD. This team was a high performing team overall and they were all (with that one exception) quite energetic. Yet individually I could clearly see Jeff was struggling to find his place. I could clearly see that he is a quiet skilled and experienced.

Actions taken

I tried to encourage him and push him to do better. He would agree and try but nothing was really changing. I knew I should do something about it: I must change my ways. First thing was to validate my assumption, by taking taking the time to match his work to the levelling matrix that we use to measure performance. This helped me understand better his level of performance against the company standards and identify areas where he needs to improve. And realize that he was simply doing less than expected. When he took a task, he would complete it and do it well. Next, I subtly hinted at a few missed opportunities. Point out some shortcomings in deliverables with the aim of understanding how he thinks, sees and feels. This lead me to come to a conclusion, or a theory, that it was all about he did not feel confident taking on prod-related tasks, and when he worked on a task, he would take too long before it landed in prod. In our weekly meeting, I asked him to compare his level against each member of the team and simply define if he is less, equal or better. Now this is not something I would do usually, I don't encourage that sort of comparisons, but this time I thought it was suitable. He ended up saying that he is less than each member of the team, even compared to the most junior member of the team. I said to him, I don't think he is being fair to himself. I could clearly see that he was was not faking it. We continued to talk about his experience, skills and strengths. I assured him that making mistakes is part of the job, and encouraged him to take risks and not be afraid to fail or make mistakes.

Lessons learned

  1. I should always validate my assumptions.
  2. Creating a safe environment where my team is not afraid to make mistakes is critical.
  3. Pep talk does not help underperformers. It might actually do more harm than good.

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Ramez Hanna

Leadership consultant at Eneba

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