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Broaching the Topic of Underperformance

Coaching / Training / Mentorship
Conflict solving
Feedback
Underperformance
Managing Expectations

11 June, 2019

Jonathan Tiret, engineering director at PhotoBox, touches on the importance of providing facts, while giving your employee the benefit of the doubt, when addressing the issue of their underperformance.

Problem

When someone is underperforming, it not only affects their own work and deliveries, but it also affects other team members. Work that is improperly done decreases the standard of the whole team and should be addressed quickly while notifying others that you are doing so.

Actions taken

  • As an engineering manager, you should gather all of the factual information from which you have taken notes. If the problem is not something you can personally observe, acquire feedback from others, in a factual way that avoids meddling with emotions and interpetions. When obtaining feedback, ask very specific questions involving metrics and numbers.
  • Upon gathering that information, I would advise that you quickly organize a one-one-one with your employee. Do this in a way that genuinely shows your care for the employee's well-being, alongside his performance. When explaining the facts, it is important to wait for the employee to provide their own explanation and to never assume the origin of their underperformance, whether it be personal or professional.
  • When trying to understand the root of the issue, you should first see whether the problem comes from you or external factors. If it comes from you as a manager, you should set more clear expectations. If the problem comes from the employee, then you should try to find solutions. Depending on the issue, you can implement a performance improvement plan with training or find a mentor for the employee. What is important is that this plan should be followed regularly.
  • Another solution can be a change of team, if you think the current team might be too difficult for the said underperformer.
  • If employee performance doesn't change, you should consider firing the employee as a final option.

Lessons learned

  • Never assume that the problem doesn't come from you as a manager. Underperformance can sometimes come from the expectations given by the manager. If the objectives you give are not clear enough, you can not expect your employee to be a high performer. This is especially true when you manage individual contributors. The expectations need to be set with clarity from the beginning.
  • Sometimes people can be high performers in some contexts and lower performers in others. For this reason, a change of team is not just a theoretical solution, but a viable one that can have a huge impact.
  • You should involve HR as a last resort when you are considering firing someone and not for stating the problem, finding solutions, or establishing improvement plans.
  • While firing someone is a hard thing to consider when you start as a manager, it should be taken into serious consideration after you have followed the aforementioned actions to remedy the issue. You can not let this type of underperformance impact your role and the company performance.
  • When you really want to understand the problem at hand, you may encounter solutions and origins of the problem that you hadn't previously considered. In this case, truly listening to the person and their issues is extremely helpful to learn things you maybe didn't expect. Likewise, in presenting facts to an employee, you will realize that they may also not have expected to hear that they were underperforming at this point. Therefore, steer away from assuming that the person is aware of these things until you bring them facts to discuss.

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