We want people to be successful and should give every opportunity for individuals to work effectively. To do that, we need to talk candidly about underperformance. People don't underperform on purpose. It is usually a result of misalignment of expectations, skills, working relationships, or combinations thereof. Calling out underperformance is a tough conversation for managers too.

However, important deliverables or being understaffed are not good reasons to keep a team member stagnant at the same level of sub par performance. It's not fair to them, to their team members, clients or managers. In line with our intention to make our teammates successful, talking about underperformance and having a system to call it out respectfully, working on it and giving people every chance to recover, are important.

Underperformance can be called out by two people: the manager who sees the underperformance and the individual who feels they are underperforming.

Manager's responsibility

In all cases, we want a manager who asks themselves the question "Is this the best person I could hire today?" to respond with a "Yes!".

Some cases where this might not be true are:

  • Over a period of time (say, 1-2 months), there has been a gradual and consistent drop in performance

  • There are instances of big impact errors, where the person has the skills needed but has made errors in execution

  • Learning and picking up nuances of the project (technical or otherwise) has not at the pace needed for the work at hand, for over 2-3 months.

  • Any other situation where the person has been told what is expected of them, and owing to them not picking up the pace, others in the team have to pitch in.

In these cases, the responsible thing for the manager is to talk about it with the team member, find out if there are challenges invisible to the manager.

Team member's responsibility

Discuss the circumstance immediately with the manager. If there are circumstances in your life that cause you to be less effective immediately tell your manager. It isn't required to give details if you prefer not to. Tell your manager when it started, to what extend it hinders your work, and what your forecast is for it to get better. When you delay this conversation until your manager identifies underperformance you've lost trust that would be helpful to get through this period.

Identify and take action as early as possible

Taking action sooner allows the action to be less severe and allows more time for coaching to have an effect. The important thing to remember is to always address any early signs of underperformance immediately.

Discuss immediately with the manager's manager

Underperformance is between a team member, the manager, and their manager. That is because the manager of the manager needs to see that underperformance is identified early and can help advising proportional actions to address it. Taking early action on underperformance is one of the most important ways to get results and an essential managerial skill. In order to take the best action and show you are handling it please inform your manager immediately when you've identified possible underperformance. Since possible underperformance is an important topic to talk about as soon as possible it is the first item of the 1-1 agenda. Managing underperformance is very important because it sets the standard for the performance we accept. It is hard because frequently the underperformance is due to an error we made in hiring, on boarding and/or coaching. It is also hard because it is a difficult message to give and receive that someone's performance is not adequate. Given these complexities, as the manager of the team member with underperformance, the currencies you need to use in this conversation are

  1. Trust that your manager will extend the required empathy, support and time, and

  2. Speed of conversation, consensus and action planning

In the conversations, both managers need to be prepared for the spectrum of possible outcomes: on one end, the team member uses the opportunity and support to grow and come up to speed; on the other, to be prepared for the realisation that the team members may be more successful with a different set of circumstances, possibly at another company.

Options for remediation

  1. Coaching