5 Steps to Handling Poor Performance on a Project Team

When project teams work well, they can get a lot done. As long as a project manager has a good project plan and team members willing to work together, things tend to run smoothly. Necessary resources are obtained, deadlines are met, and quality is, at the very least, acceptable.

When team members do not perform to agreed-upon norms and standards, a project’s timeline, quality, and budget are threatened. Poor performance on projects happens from time to time. When it does, project managers must deal with it quickly and effectively to minimize the damage it does to the project. Unaddressed poor performance does not go away on its own.

It is important to follow the steps in the order they’re presented until the performance issue is resolved. Once performance improves, a project manager no longer needs to follow the steps. If the problem arises again, the project manager may choose to start the steps over or pick up where he or she left off. A project manager must use professional judgment to decide which course of action to take. Advice from the project sponsor may be necessary.​

Address the Issue Directly with the Team Member

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The first step to addressing poor performance by a project team member is to bring the issue directly to the team member. Before involving anyone else, the project manager talks to the team member privately about what was agreed upon or expected and how the team member’s actions have not met those standards. Focus the conversation on the behavior and not the person. If the team member feels attacked, he or she is unlikely to listen to concerns.

Sometimes, people do not know they are performing poorly and need to be told. Most people are willing to fix genuine problems when they are known. Wouldn’t you want to know if you were not meeting a colleague’s reasonable expectations?​

Come to an agreement on how you two will proceed. You both may need to make commitments on how you will behave in the future. For example, you may need to be more precise in communicating what you expect, and the team member may need to ask clarifying questions when he does not understand what is expected. By modifying your behavior, you foster goodwill from the team member toward you. 

Give the Team Member a Chance to Correct Behavior

Once a team member knows about his or her offending behavior, give him or her a chance to correct it. As you move forward with the project, look for ways to set up the team member for success. For instance, if you have discussed a team member’s missing deadlines, check in with the team member well before his next deadline to see if there is anything you can do to help him make the next deadline. 

Escalate the Issue to the Team Member’s Supervisor

If trying to work out the issue between the two of you does not work out, the next step is to escalate the issue to the team member’s supervisor. When you go to the supervisor, explain the performance issue and outline the steps you have taken to resolve it. If you have made a good faith effort to handle the situation yourself, most supervisors will be willing to help you. 

Again, Give the Team Member a Chance to Correct Behavior

After making the team member’s supervisor aware of the issue, you now need to give the team member another chance to correct his or her behavior.

At points in this behavior correction process, you may be tempted to repeat steps. For example, you may want to bring the issue to the team member a second time before going to his supervisor. At times, this is a reasonable course of action. Other times, you just prolong the poor performance. Each situation is different, so you use your judgment and possibly advice from the project sponsor or your boss. 

Escalate the Issue to the Project Sponsor

If the poor performance is still going on, you’re fed up. You’ve given the team member opportunities to correct behavior, and he’s squandered them. You’ve done all you can to fix the issue from the bottom up, but now it is time to bring in the heavy hitter to fix it from the top down.

Like when you brought up the issue to the team member’s supervisor, lay out all the pertinent information for the sponsor. Go into the meeting with the project sponsor knowing what you want him or her to do. If you want one of the sponsor’s peers to counsel the team member, say so. If you want the team member replaced with someone else, say so. The sponsor is there to support you and give you what you need for the project to be successful. Tell the project sponsor what you need.

There is a slim chance the issue may not be resolved with the project sponsor’s intervention. If that is the case, ask the sponsor to try different courses of action to resolve the issue. Once the sponsor has agreed to take on the problem, let him or her solve it. However, the sponsor can’t solve it if you do not alert the sponsor when the problem is still a problem.