5 Steps to Handling Poor Performance on a Project Team

When project teams work well, they can get a lot done. If a project manager has a good project plan and team members willing to work together, things can 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 can adversely affect a project.

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

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 should talk to the team member privately about expected performance and the manner in which the team member has not met those expectations.

Focus the conversation on the behavior and not the person. If the team member feels attacked, they are unlikely to listen to your 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 brought to their attention. 

Come to an agreement on the next steps. For example, ensure the team member understands the tasks and expectations. Make sure you are communicating clearly for that team member—not everyone comprehends everything the same way.

If you need to adjust your methods, be sure to let them know you will modify your behavior as well to help. This communicates to the team member that you are trying to help them as well.

Make sure you document the session, including any corrective measures put in place or discussed.

Give the Team Member a Chance to Correct Behavior

Once a team member knows about their performance issue, give them 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 continuously missing deadlines, check-in with the team member well before their next deadline to see if there is anything you can do to help them make it. 

A little concern and assistance from you can go along way towards helping someone improve in the areas they need to work on.

Escalate the Issue to the Team Member’s Report-To Manager

If the steps you took to work through a team member's performance did not work, the next step is to escalate the issue to the team member’s report-to manager.

When you go to their manager, explain the performance issue and outline the steps you have taken to resolve it. Bring the documentation of the meeting you had with the team member so that you have written proof of the interaction.

If you have made a good faith effort to handle the situation yourself, most managers will be willing to help you. 

Again, Give the Team Member a Chance to Correct Behavior

After making the team member’s manager aware of the issue, you should give the team member another chance to correct their behavior.

At different points in this 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 report-to manager.

At times, this is a reasonable course of action. Other times, you are prolonging the poor performance. Each situation is different, so use your best judgment. You could possibly solicit advice from your project sponsor or your boss. 

Escalate the Issue to the Project Sponsor

One poor performing member can hold your project back. You’ve given the team member multiple opportunities to correct performance issues to no avail. A continuous performance issue such as this calls for escalation. 

Similar to engaging the team member’s report-to manager, have all documented issues and all pertinent information to take to the project sponsor. Go into the meeting with the project sponsor knowing what you want them 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, suggest it. The sponsor is there to support you and give you what you need for the project to be successful.

There is a slim chance the issue may not be resolved with the project sponsor’s intervention. If that is the case, procedures to replace the member should be followed.

Once the sponsor has agreed to take on the problem, let him or her solve it. A sponsor's job is to run interference for you and assert their influence to assist you. If your sponsor doesn't know about an issue, they can’t help.