Project Management Institute

Pulling up poor performers



Protect a project from these four types of poor performers by learning how to lift them up.



Just as one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel, one poor performer can burden an entire team. A poorly performing project team member can delay schedules, lower morale, blow budgets, overtax other team members and waste a manager's time. Managers spend one-sixth of their time dealing with poor performers, according to a 2012 survey from human resources firm Robert Half International. And sometimes, the damage can be even more severe.

“I‘ve seen situations where the image and reputation of an entire group was significantly tarnished for years because of the actions of one particular individual in that group,” says Francois Morin, PMP, vice president of worldwide IT at Advanced Digital Broadcast, Geneva, Switzerland. “Regaining credibility afterward can become extremely difficult, if not impossible.”

That's why project managers need to confront signs of slippage as soon as possible, and come equipped with mitigation strategies.

“When you confront your poor performers, you will find that one of two things happens: Either they improve or they move,” says Imran Malik, CAPM, PMI-ACP, PMI-RMP, PMI-SP, PMP, PgMP, director of the program management office at Dubai, United Arab Emirates-based du Telecom, a PMI Global Executive Council member.

Project managers should make it a priority to find the root cause of performance problems. A performance slump may be attributed to family issues, health problems, training deficiencies, ineffective tools, unclear expectations, lack of supervisor support or a problem in the work environment.

“Gathering this information is best achieved by meeting one-on-one with the team member and asking open-ended questions,” Mr. Malik says. “Once the cause is identified, a manager must offer advice that addresses the solution to the problem.”

Here are four types of poor performers to watch out for on your projects— and tips to help them improve before it's too late.


“Give the team member some ownership of the work and involve them in the process by asking what deadlines would work best for them and what you can do to help them meet those dates.”

—Renelle Darr, PMP, InSight Coaching and Consulting, Denver, Colorado, USA


Modus Operandi: Turning in late or incomplete work

Turn-around Techniques: Setting intermediate deadlines and holding collaborative scheduling meetings

Employees who produce high-quality work but consistently miss deadlines can derail a project. To provide an antidote to this behavior, Hassan Osman, PMP, senior program manager at Cisco Systems in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, once gave one such poor performer intermediate deadlines—as often as every three days rather than the original two weeks.

“This forced him to be more productive and allowed me to monitor work-in-progress drafts to make sure the final deadline would be met,” Mr. Osman says.

Collaborative meetings also help team members meet their deadlines. Rather than using meetings to dole out responsibilities and deadlines, project managers should involve team members in setting realistic delivery dates, says Renelle Darr, PMP, coach and management consultant at InSight Coaching and Consulting in Denver, Colorado, USA.

“Project managers often assign action items and deadlines without asking team members if that works for them,” she says. “Give the team member some ownership of the work and involve them in the process by asking what deadlines would work best for them and what you can do to p them meet those dates.”

Modus Operandi: Irregular status reports or—even worse—radio silence

Turn-around Techniques: Regular check-ins and streamlined reporting

Project managers often work with team members who fail to provide regular updates or share information only with certain people. This communication backlog can cause confusion and delays.

“Unfortunately, some people treat knowledge and information like power—sharing it with only those they wish to please and leaving everyone else in the dark,” Mr. Malik says.

Often, when poor communicators do offer information, they rely solely on email. “It's frustrating when I see a business email being sent to over a dozen stakeholders,” Mr. Malik says. “This kind of communication demands almost no result and no response because, as a team member, you have failed to identify accountability and responsibility.”

To address this issue, meet with the team member and perform an analysis of past communication—whether it's email blasts or shoddy status reporting—focusing on the deficiencies, why the miscommunication took place and what changes need to occur. The team member may simply be unclear on what's expected of him or her. If you're consistently addressing one team member's communication missteps, Mr. Malik suggests outlining in detail what's expected of that person. That brief meeting should be followed by one-on-one meetings every day or week until the poor communicator's performance improves.

Additionally, make the status-reporting process as easy as possible. Team members can easily be bogged down with excessive paperwork and elaborate reporting templates, making it more difficult for them to communicate their status. Ms. Darr says reporting templates should be simple and concise and include only the basics: where they're at, what their issues are and what they need to move forward.

“Processes should enable you to do business more effectively and efficiently, not become a bottleneck,” Mr. Malik says.


Meet with a team member who's sloppy on details to show how a lack of attention can impact the whole project.

—Neil Coutts, PMP, KPMG LLP, Glasgow, Scotland

Modus Operandi: Cutting corners

Turn-around Techniques: Individual coaching

When project details fall through the cracks, quality can suffer, deadlines can slide and budgets can quickly be overrun. Meet with a team member who's sloppy on details to show how a lack of attention can impact the whole project, says Neil Coutts, PMP, Glasgow, Scotland-based principal adviser, management consulting at accounting firm KPMG LLP, a PMI Global Executive Council member.

At the first sign of inattention to detail, meet with your team members individually to let them know the carelessness has been noted—and needs to change. Give them specific examples of where their performance has fallen below the standard required. If details were missed in a plan estimate, for instance, Mr. Coutts suggests encouraging team members to participate more in project meetings so they have a clearer understanding of all the aspects involved. The feedback may be enough to recharge their attention to detail.

Follow that one-on-one coaching with regular peer reviews, which, over time, will instill an “internal quality assessment,” he says.

If a strong team member has suddenly become a detail neglector, it may be a sign that he or she is mismatched to the task at hand. Mr. Osman says simply asking team members what tasks they're most interested in can often help them sharpen their focus. At the beginning of a project, he presents his team with a work-breakdown structure or activity list and asks team members to volunteer for tasks they'd like to tackle.

“I‘m almost always surprised by their selections,” he says. “Some are interested in working on new things that are out of their comfort zone, and others like to stick to what they know. I think most people are inherently motivated to work but only with the right thing for them.”

Modus Operandi: Laser focus

Turn-around Technique: Supervisor check-ins

Some team members have difficulty shifting focus among tasks or projects—especially when they're fielding tasks from multiple managers.

The best way to address this is to meet with the team member and his or her other manager to create a list of priorities together. The project manager needs to align closely with the team member's boss so both parties know what the other is requesting.

Going forward, project managers can empower team members to do this on their own by including prioritization in status meetings: Go around the room and ask people their top three priorities for the week, gently challenging them if adjustments are needed, “This approach allows team members to take ownership of prioritizing their tasks and activities on the project,” Ms. Darr says.

What's rarely effective, however, is micromanaging this type of poor performer, says Ms. Darr. “Instead, project managers need to influence and coach. It's important to understand the individual's strengths and motivators, and take the time to understand what is getting in the way of prioritizing,” Ms. Darr says. “Sometimes all it takes is just truly listening and brainstorming. This situation is really the ‘art’ side of project managing people.”

When Enough Is Enough

Sometimes, no amount of performance-improvement work will do the trick, and letting your team member go is the only answer. Neil Coutts, PMP, KPMG LLP, Glasgow, Scotland, shares five signs that it's time to cut your poor performer loose:

1 Behavior has not changed, despite repeated attempts to correct it
2 Deliverables continue to be of poor quality
3 Deadlines are missed, despite close monitoring and reminders
4 Attitude toward the project, the project team and the outcome has not changed
5 Working relationships with other team members continue to deteriorate and negatively impact the team's ability to deliver

“Project managers need to constantly ask themselves, ‘How can my performance help others do a better job?' Be confident enough to ask if you're contributing to someone's poor performance because your styles are clashing.”

—Renelle Darr, PMP


What works for some team members may not work for all, so it's important to consider whether your style is helping or hurting a poor performer, Ms. Darr says.

“Project managers need to constantly ask themselves, ‘How can my performance help others do a better job?' Be confident enough to ask if you're contributing to someone's poor performance because your styles are clashing,” she says.

Still, self-reflection and proactive management may not be enough to steer a poor performer back on track. Once it's clear a poor performer can't pick up the slack, regardless of the reason, project managers need to be decisive—before the project suffers, Mr. Osman says.

“If the project manager does not address the poor performer's work issues, the rest of the team might lose faith in the leader.” PM

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