Three Steps to Implement a Performance Improvement Plan for an Underperforming Employee

David Hwu

Senior Engineering Manager at Tatari


Service to an Underperformer

Working with underperforming IC is a key aspect of the engineering manager’s responsibility.
The earlier upfront this is caught, the better, as such ability to identify a given underperformer will go a long way to helping, coaching, and mentoring the underperformed.

Every organization has its way of tracking performance metrics and how that is tied to the expectations of the organization and how it aligns with the delivery of a given engineer.

I have found much of the root cause originates from a lack of alignment between what is expected from the organization vs. delivery from that engineer. Assuming best intent, I believe transparency and authenticity is the best avenue to provide the proper level of alignment. Always avoiding blame and using data to address specifics would go a long way to help to understand both sides.

As the engineering manager, your job is to provide this level of service to the organization and do everything possible to do the right thing for both the individual you are coaching and the organizational demands of the job.

Using empathy and placing yourself in the underperformer role is something I try to do when I am having these difficult conversations. As an EM, I work hard to avoid escalation and try to find common ground to understand why the underperformance is happening. Remember, every individual has complexities in their lives and how they are being matched to expectations. Famous baseball star “Babe Ruth” was famous for his life and complications. This was in no way reflective of his overall score and delivery. It’s important that, as EMs, we look at the overall person and try and help to find a solution to bridge both the individual and business needs.

PIP (Performance Improvement Plan)

PIP (Performance Improvement Plan) is a contract and a tool is used when there is a plan that is aligned on both sides to solidify the plan. EM’s primary responsibility for a PIP is to:

  • Document the agreed plan between the underperformer and the business needs
  • Layout a plan for exit of the PIP
  • Do everything possible to help and coach the underperformer to reach his goals

PIP plans often require HR and possible legal review, as any conversation between the parties will likely require alignment and expectation setting.

Before implementing a PIP, think about the specifics of the PIP and how you will help the underperformer to reach their objectives.

  • Alignment with stakeholder
  • Team impact and considerations as any difficulties will almost certainly impact team morale as well as their relationship with the individual in question.
  • Have key measurable data points for the successful exit of the PIP and alignment with stakeholders.
  • Careful consideration to messaging and consideration of written and oral asks to ensure measured expectation and delivery.
  • Having this clear intention set forward at the beginning of the PIP process enables us to have a shared understanding of the whys, how, and expectations.

Successfully Implementing a Performance Improvement Plan

Metrics to Measure Success: Whatever metrics teams use to measure successful performance need to be broken down. I ensure that I understand the nature of the measurements so that I can engage my team with them. If these metrics are not well defined, or there aren’t any, teams can get caught in a situation where they don’t know how well they are performing.

When a single team member isn’t engaging the success metric to the level of the team, it brings everyone down. Colleagues feel like they may not have to work as hard, and that’s where I need to step in. A high-performance team needs to encourage one another to step up and meet their goals on a regular basis, not based on the lowest denominator.

Daily Standup: Our company has a daily standup, like many other organizations. The goal is to talk about where we are stuck and what we have been doing. The thing about this individual is that he doesn’t share when he is stuck on a task or challenge and tries to work through it himself. He is not transparent about his struggles, making it difficult for me to offer my assistance. As soon as I began to notice this trait, I stepped in and implemented my performance plan.

Authenticity: Performance improvement plans are based on honesty, transparency, and authenticity. It is not easy to talk about underperformance from a team member that is valued, but it is essential to keep the team afloat. In my opinion, authenticity is what makes engineering leadership so hard. To try and improve my report’s performance, I needed to empathize with him and see things from his perspective. After understanding where he/she is coming from, it was vital for me to candidly explain how the team helps one another and that he should try to leverage the team to increase his performance.

If you have been in the industry for long enough, you’ve probably been in a spot where you didn’t meet the company’s expectations. A significant purpose of being a leader is to share your experiences honestly, to help team members ameliorate.

Understanding Separation

  • As a step only taken when there is no path forward (either side), separation should not be an often occurrence.
  • Before I place blame or implement a performance plan, I always look internally to determine if my leadership has done something to impact performance negatively.
  • Looking at communication, team engagement, and how the team (and your tech lead partner) should be helping with the underperformer.
  • Look at how the team can assist one another, especially with the underperformer.
  • Look at product engagement, acceptance criteria, and expectations to ensure that this aligns with the team & product.
  • Dysfunctional teams result in blame, not accountability. This is very hard to achieve, especially when under time pressure, communication gaps, as well as missed expectations. As an EM, your primary responsibility is to service through these issues and find a proper solution that meets the team’s needs as well as business goals.

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David Hwu

Senior Engineering Manager at Tatari

Engineering ManagementPerformance MetricsFeedback TechniquesLeadership RolesEngineering ManagerAgile, Scrum & KanbanFeedback & ReviewsTraining & MentorshipLeadership & StrategyTeam & Project Management

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