ADDRESSING AN UNDERPERFORMING TEAM MEMBER

Perhaps the most difficult issue any manager will ever have to confront is an underperforming team member. In my experience, no issue encourages more avoidance, even in the most senior and experienced executives. At the same time, there are few issues that destroy as much value in an organization, or undermine the ‘performance culture’ that most of us seek.

If you have an underperforming team member, the purpose of this blog is to help you lean into this most difficult of challenges, in the clearest and most constructive manner possible.

The cost of inaction

If the team member in question has a sense that they’re not performing to the required level (and they probably do), then their work day will be somewhere between very unpleasant and totally miserable. They may feel like a failure, will likely struggle for confidence, and will be waiting for the inevitable tap on their shoulder. It’s all very debilitating. If they don’t know they’re underperforming, you have an additional problem. It means that on any given day, they could be completely blindsided. Avoiding the issue does them no favours either way.

Next is the cost to your team. Let’s say you have a team of ten, and two members are underperforming. You’re now up to 20% underweight, so your team’s collective impact and output will suffer. The other eight will likely be talking about their two colleagues in the hallways, undermining team harmony. Most importantly, unaddressed underperformance lowers overall team standards and commitment. A team does not rise to the level of excellence; it drops to the level of mediocrity. Why would eight team members give their very best every day, when two colleagues are underdelivering with no apparent consequences?

Finally, there’s the cost to you. It’s very likely that you have considerable responsibilities already; never mind the added complexity and workload resulting from Covid. If you step in to do their job, who will do yours? Martyrdom is not leadership.

No matter how complex or nuanced the specific situation, it will almost always boil down to one of two main issues; skill or will. Is the core issue one of competency, capability or intellect (skill)? Or is it one of desire, attitude or behavioural standards (will)?

Skill

If the issue is one of skill, the key is to determine whether the conditions are present for the team member to turn their situation around. The following questions can help you get there;

  • Can you define the specific skills that the team member must acquire or improve on, to perform at the required level?
  • For each skill, can you define the quantum of improvement required in a way that can be measured or observed?
  • Can you see a pathway for them to acquire the skills (e.g., exposure, training, a mentor)?
  • Do you have sufficient time left for them to display the required skills?
  • Is there anything more that you can do, as their manager, to set them up for success?
  • Do you believe they can make it?

If you answer ‘yes’ to all or most of these questions, then there’s a good chance your team member can raise their performance to the required level. Your job is to very clearly define the specific gaps they must bridge, let them know how much you believe in them, and then support them to give it their best shot.

If you answer ‘no’ to some of these questions, then it’s very unlikely your team member will be able to get there. Given the issue is not one of attitude, the best possible scenario is to accept defeat on this particular role, and try to find them another role where they have the skills to be more successful.

Will

If the issue is one of will, the key is to determine whether the team member will accept personal responsibility for their situation and make a genuine attempt to turn it around. The following questions can help you get there;

  • Can you define the specific standards of behavior that the team member must demonstrate, with examples of where they have fallen short?
  • For each standard, can you define the quantum of improvement required in a way that can be observed?
  • Do you have sufficient time left for them to display different standards of behavior?
  • Is there enough stakeholder support for this team member (or have they burnt too many bridges)?
  • Will the team member take ownership of the feedback and wholeheartedly commit to change (or will they argue it away, blame others, etc.)?
  • Do you believe they can make the necessary changes?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to all or most of these questions, then there’s a reasonable chance your team member can raise their standards of behavior to the desired level, if they choose to.

Your job then, is to be very clear about the behaviors they must change, the timeframe within which they must change them, and the consequences for not changing. In this situation, it’s best to be really explicit about the size of the challenge, give them a day to think about it, and ask them to make a choice one way or the other.

Let them know that if they want to give it another go, they need to convince you that they’re really up for it; no excuses or half-measures. Pay very close attention to their energy, body language and tone of voice. It’s possible to turn around a ‘will’ issue, but it requires absolute commitment from the team member as the start point.

If the answer to some of the above questions is ‘no’, then there’s very little chance that your team member will turn it around. The longer the status quo continues, the more damage you’re doing to all concerned.

Confronting underperformance in a team member is probably the most difficult thing a manager can ever do. It’s also one of the most important. Done well, there is perhaps no greater way to positively affect the performance of a team, or the culture of an organization. I hope this blog helps you to lean in to this difficult issue, in a clear and constructive way.

If you’re looking for some bite-sized leadership insights, inspiration and tactics in between these long-form blogs, I’m now posting daily to Instagram. You can get access by following me here.

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about PETER

For two decades, Dr. Peter Fuda has been a Sherpa to leaders, teams and organizations across the globe. He’s coached more than 200 CEOs to measurably higher levels of performance. His consulting company has delivered some 50 cases of business transformation and more than 1,000 cases of leadership transformation, at a success rate of greater than 90%.

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