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Part 4. Managing Low Performance and the Illusion of Hope

Managing-Low-Performance-and-the-Illusion-of-Hope
Managing-Low-Performance-and-the-Illusion-of-Hope

In this next part of our series on technical leadership, we confront a challenge every leader faces at some point: dealing with low performers. The approach to this delicate issue can significantly impact not just the individual involved but the entire team’s dynamics. I’ll explore how to manage low performers effectively and why hope alone is not a strategy.

Relying on Hope

Every leader has encountered a situation where a team member isn’t performing as expected. It’s common to think, “We all have highs and lows, it will get better..” While this might be true, such a passive attitude, relying on hope for change, is flawed. Hope should never be a strategy.

While a leader wishes and waits for a situation to improve, the rest of the team loses valuable time and energy dealing with their underperforming colleague. This not only means doing extra work but can also lower the team’s spirit.

 It’s demotivating to see a teammate struggle without any intervention. Delayed action can erode the relationship between the low performer and the team to a point where it’s almost impossible to help.

Proactive Leadership

So, what’s the best way to intervene as a leader? A good analogy is to think of it as teaching someone to walk, then jog, and eventually run with the team.

Initially, this often requires a bit of micromanagement for monitoring purposes, respecting the individual’s pace, and trusting in their ability and willingness to improve.

It’s crucial to set a timeframe for this mentorship and support effort (e.g., 1 or 2 months) and define clear, measurable goals. Vague objectives like “We need you to perform better and be at the team’s level” are neither clear nor realistic. Instead, specific and measurable goals like “Bring well-described and estimated tasks to planning, handle them end-to-end until deployment in production” are more effective.

Progress should be gradual, starting with small tasks and gradually increasing their scope and responsibility. This approach allows for measurable improvement and builds confidence through small successes. Perhaps deploying in production might be too much initially and require support from another team member or yourself. However, the individual should be capable of proposing tasks and discussing them in planning or grooming sessions, receiving positive feedback from the team.

The Four Quadrants of Team Member Evaluation

Finally, before initiating an improvement plan, it’s necessary to assess the individual based on their alignment with the company/team values and their technical skills. 

A few years ago, I took a mentorship on leadership at XnPartners, in which the following scheme was presented, which I use as a basis for decision-making.

Depending on their position in this matrix, we can determine the best improvement approach.

The Four Quadrants of Team Member Evaluation

  • Quadrant 1: The most common case where some technical knowledge and experience are lacking, but there’s alignment with values and a positive attitude toward improvement. A 1 or 2-month improvement plan with proper follow-up and learning resources should suffice for noticeable progress.
  • Quadrant 2: The ideal case where the individual aligns with values and possesses excellent technical skills. These individuals can help low performers improve.
  • Quadrant 3: A hiring mismatch: lacking both alignment with values and technical skills. Improvement is unlikely, and it’s not advisable to invest team effort and time.
  • Quadrant 4: The most challenging case, where someone excels technically but fails to align with team values and attitudes. These situations require a frank, honest conversation to align expectations and motivate the individual to let their technical excellence influence their attitude, showing them how this is crucial for their professional development and that of their peers.

Conclusion

The key is to tailor your approach based on the unique needs and circumstances of each individual

This requires a blend of empathy, strategic thinking, and a commitment to the team’s collective success.

 As leaders, our role isn’t just to manage but to inspire growth and foster a culture of continuous improvement. By addressing low performance with a thoughtful, structured approach, we not only aid the individual’s development but also strengthen the entire team. Effective leadership is about making tough decisions with compassion and foresight, always aiming towards building a cohesive, high-performing team.