How to Let an Underperformer Cause Your Project to Fail?

How to deal with underperformer in project Let me guess, you read the title twice.

Here are my reasons for naming this article this way.

First is of course to catch your attention. Because I’m going to share a research finding for most of the project failures, and I want you to take note of it. It makes your life easier as a project manager.

Second, I want to impress upon the fact that irrespective of various project management approaches, tools & techniques, and technology (ChatGPT in project management?!), what truly matters for projects to succeed is a focus on people.

Take this incident, for instance.

On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members aboard.

Including a teacher.

Explosion of Challenger Shuttle. Image courtesy: Wikipedia

The explosion of Challenger Shuttle. Image courtesy: Wikipedia

The spacecraft disintegrated 46,000 feet (14 km) above the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 11:39 a.m. EST. The mishap occurred due to a combination of a faulty seal on a rocket booster and cold weather.

It was determined that human error was partly to blame.

This is not an outlier case.

In their book, “THE SIX – why so many projects fail, and how to succeed“, authors Andreas Trautner & Chris Kolborg say, “Projects don’t fail. People fail”.

Harold Kerzner (2010) shares that project failures can be actually people failures.

According to PMI’s Standish Reports [1] the average project success rates are a mere 30%. This means that 70% of projects fail!

There’s overwhelming evidence that most project failures are due to overlooked risks or mistakes due to the poor performance of one or more team members.


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What are the attributes of an underperformer?

Symptoms of someone being an underperformer in your team are easy to spot once you know what to look for.

1. On your 1-1s is more than one team member talking about one specific person?

Go beyond the words while talking to them. Complaining isn’t natural or comfortable for people. They tend to sugarcoat what they want to say.

Study their body language. Do they feel uncomfortable while talking about this person? Do they smile a lot while narrating an incident of a screw-up by that person?

It could be a sign to watch the performance of the person in question closely.

2. Does someone keep failing to meet deadlines, or maintain the quality of their work?

It could be due to the overwhelm (temporary reason) or skill-work mismatch (lack of training), or even deliberate inaction (attitude issue).

The overwhelm could be because of the unfamiliarity of work, too many tasks to be done in a short timeframe, or just the enormity of the task. Assuming that the person is qualified and capable of doing this job, the issue with overwhelm is temporary.

To address overwhelm, you need to help them break down the work into small doable tasks, and keep ticking off them as each task is done. Help them gain confidence in their own ability to do a good job. Encourage small wins. Show them that you have their back. Give them time to get comfortable with work and the pace as well as quality will go north.

The skill-work mismatch is an issue that needs a quick resolution. You need to either move the person to a different project where the work matches her skillset or arrange for training.

With training, you can consider this to be a medium-term resolution.

The deliberate inaction is an attitude issue. The resolution, if possible could take a long-term effort. You need to move in quickly to fix it because attitude can be contagious and affect other team members.

Have a straight discussion and find the root cause for the bad attitude. If you feel that the person is willing to change their attitude you may want to follow it up with specific, measurable parameters to see improvement at work. If you feel the person is not willing to change, you may need to move them out of your project in consultation with the project sponsor and the HR department.

3. Are their direct beneficiaries of the output of a person complaining?

Some team members could be great to work with, but the beneficiaries of their work aren’t happy. This could happen with someone with customer-facing work, or with someone who is a point of contact for a vendor.

Talk to them as well as the team member and understand both sides of the story. This will help you assess whether it is due to any misunderstandings, or communication issues, or even if it is a process-related issue.

You may other articles in this ‘Project Manager Growth’ series!

Misconduct is Not underperformance!

  • Misconduct is a violation of the rules of work. As a manager, you need to ensure that all such expectations are written in a team
    Learn how to address the issue of underperformance in your project

    Learn how to address the issue of underperformance in your project

    charter and understood by all the team members. Underperformance could be because of a lack of expertise, misunderstanding of expectations, attitude, or other reasons.

  • Misconduct takes the form of “I will not do”, while underperformance takes the form of “I can’t do” during your conversations.
  • Misconduct could be the misuse of resources, consistently being late to work, unwillingness to attend important work events such as meetings, or committing fraud. Underperformance is not being able to meet the expectation of their job profile, such as not being able to complete the work within a given timeline and with acceptable quality.

What is causing or aiding the underperformance?

It could be the environment, that is circumstances, the culture of the team and company, employee policies, and issues such as office politics.

Find answers to the following questions and you will know any potential causes of underperformance.

1/ Is every team member aware of the expectations from their role?

The project charter should outline the individual behavioral expectations of the team.

Organizational policies should have general guidelines, dos, and don’ts, such as rules about accepting gifts from customers or vendors.
If a team member is working from a client’s place, she needs to understand the rules of engagement there.

2/ Is the communication in the project streamlined so everyone is conveyed what they need to know using the right communication method and within the time?

For example, if a meeting invite goes 10 minutes before it begins and someone cannot attend it due to previous commitments, she can’t be considered to be someone missing meetings.

3/ Has the skill-to-job requirements matched for each team member and their potential training needs identified?

People keep moving from one project to another based on business needs, project needs, or even employee needs.
In each case, before inducting them into the project the project manager must ensure that the person has the ability and given resources to do the good job that’s expected out of her.

4/ Is everyone motivated enough to work in their role?

If a member is not happy with their growth path in the company, then even if they are capable of being productive their lack of motivation may not help them enjoy the work.

If this is the case, then you will need to work out their growth plan. Align the company’s goal, the project’s goal, and the employee’s growth path and take out the most common cause of motivation.

Sometimes it could be some personal reason that’s causing motivation. An impending divorce, the health condition of a close family member, and so on. In such cases, talk to them and see if any of the company policies can help. Or even if the company can help with counseling in such cases.

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How to deal with underperformance?

When dealing with someone underperforming, the usual tendency is to ‘wait and watch’, or to give them some time to improve. Things rarely change on their own, and thus this strategy could be actually harming the employee.
Rather, take this approach.

Step 1. Have an open conversation with the employee

Make them understand that they are performing below expectations. Hear their side of the story.
The first step is for them to accept reality. If they are in denial, especially after showing proof that they are not performing up to the mark, then the next steps may not help. And you may have to involve the Human Resources department in the conversation.

Step 2. Review the current performance.

After the employee accepts that she is performing below par, the next step is to review the current performance on a few fixed parameters. They could be in terms of time (schedule), quality, or any other assessment parameters.

The Key Performance Areas and measurement criteria are usually taken from the end-of-term performance assessment cycles.

Document the current performance quantitatively. You’ll need them to measure future performance.

Step 3. Working out a Performance Improvement Plan

Now work out a performance improvement plan.

This may involve providing training that the employee needs.

Or it could be assigning her a mentor.

It could also be a case of giving a short break to relax and recharge and come back to work.

The plan is worked out in consultation with the Human Resources team and if required with the knowledge of the sponsor.

The expected period of assessment and expected assessment parameter values are decided with mutual consent.

It expected performance should not be high to set up the employee for failure, and not too low to necessitate another performance improvement plan. It should be set to what is acceptable for the employee to continue working on the project at the expected level of productivity and output.

It is also the time when the next course of action, in case the employee cannot meet the expected performance, is discussed.

Typically the performance improvement plans are for 3-6 months, a sufficient time for the team member to show improvement. And the actual duration could depend on the needs of the project as well.

Step 4. Assess periodically against this plan

This is the final part, where things are going to be clear.

The assessment frequency, KPA, parameters, and values as decided in the previous step, as used to measure the performance.

If they match up to the expectations then the employee will continue with normal work in the project, or else the next actions are initiated.

The next action could be transferred to another project, working at a level below the current level with associated compensation, or termination from work with severance pay.

What should you do as a manager to support an underperformer?

As a manager, you should provide enough support to the employee undergoing performance improvement duration. As such they may not be in a positive frame of mind.

So, be empathetic. Also, talk to the rest of the team members and ask them to extend whatever support they can provide to help the person improve and show results.

Before doing this though, check your company policies about disclosing information about employee performance. Some organizations may have a clause that one employee’s performance is not to be discussed with another.

Provide training, mentoring, and any other agreed-upon support to the employee. Make them feel part of the team and feel that you have their back.

Concluding thoughts about managing an underperformer

Many CEOs do the family talk (“we are one family”) because of a strategy consultant’s advice or because they read some self-help book.
Let’s look at the reality.

Employee-employer relation is fundamentally transactional. Even if you, as a manager, feel that your team members are as close as family members, if the funding is reduced and you are asked to downsize the team, you will not be in a position to deny it. You have to let them go.

Treating people as people and not ‘resources’ is essential to make sure they are in a happy mindset to give their best time, energy, skills, and creativity to do an excellent job at their work.

You will typically find an underperformer in a team, especially when you are working on a complex project with talented members. It would only make you more empathetic and a better leader by helping them increase their performance.

And in the process become a project leader!

Good luck!

Learn PMP with Shiv Shenoy, PMPShiv Shenoy, PMP

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  • [1] Rączka, M. (2015). Do your projects fail?: Don’t change the methodology or people. Change the system! Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2015—EMEA, London, England. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
  • Kerzner, H. (2010) Recovery Project Management: Techniques and Tactics for Reversing Falling Projects. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.
  • PMI’s Pulse of Profession:

Photo by charlesdeluvio on Unsplash.

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