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  • Writer's pictureSavita Ferguson

When a teammate doesn't perform quite as expected

Under-performing individuals have no place on a self organizing team. You never want to demotivate individuals who are trying hard at resolving all the problems they see, by having them work alongside someone who doesn't support that goal.


That's not to say that we should be intolerant of people having bad days or even seasons in their lives. But there is a difference between someone who cares to do better and is struggling and someone who doesn't really care to do better. Where your employee fits on this spectrum is an easy thing to test - you talk to them.


Teams often find themselves in situations where there's that one colleague who doesn't quite work the way the others do. What can you do in that situation?


Set clear expectations. I always encourage every single team I work with to have a team formation exercise where we understand each others preferences and constraints. 2020 was a year that showed how critical that shared understanding needed to be when all of a sudden many parents were caught out with closed daycares and school buildings. In an open dialogue about what constraints we have, a parent could say - between 10-12 and 2-4 are the best times for me to have meetings because it is when my kid naps, apart form that I'll really need to work nighttimes. Even though that's not so much a thing in the West anymore, it is still important to create a team culture (or at the very least opportunities for the team) where they can discuss openly where they expect from their teammates and where they may fall short.


Rally around the tasks. One common failure of standup meetings is where team use them as purely a status update. In a setting like this, sometimes team members mentally switch off when they have given their update and don't truly listen to their teammates update because they are thinking about their own. Team leads need to get this meeting right so that team members are listening to, challenging, and offering to help their colleagues. One way of doing that is by ensuring that the team is actually working together on the same goal - or at least have more than one team member allocated to each specific goal. This gives them a natural impetus to do things like jumping on a call to pair program; But also make the team tasks visible and easy to understand for the other team members who may not be actively working on that specific task. Using.a simple tool like visible todo lists can aid with that understanding of how the whole picture fits together; and a tool like hill charts is a great visible indicator of when work is stuck (or moving in the wrong direction) and would benefit from some intervention.


Give feedback clearly and quickly. There's often a fine line between being clear and direct, and being accusatory, so many people shy away from giving negative or concerned feedback. So teach your teams how to do this well.

  • Be mindful of your biases - discussing an issue with like minded individuals can sometimes reinforce pre-existing perceptions in the way you perceive a situation. Seek to view this situation from different angles and do not allow the other team members to group together to negatively discuss one of their colleagues.

  • Ask questions - seek first to understand, then to be understood. Take the opportunity to correct any biases you have by asking clean questions aimed at deeper understanding. For example: teammate, I noticed that you marked this task as done without adding any in-line documentation, why is that? It allows the teammate to explain to you that they wrote the code in a way that they consider self-documenting.

  • Express to the individual the evidence of the situation, not your interference of the causes behind it. Express the impact to you and to other team members to help them see your perspective without feeling too defensive.

  • Escalate after trying to give feedback directly first - It sometimes break trust between individuals when instead of discussing an issue directly, a third party is brought into the mix. By all means inform managers, but it is almost always better to speak directly to each other rather than including a go-between.

Set team boundaries Using clear boundaries is a relatively easy way to help an underperforming individual think about their options with regard to the work delivery. This works well in a situation where the team member has a tendency go to down and get stuck into rabbit holes. An impending deadline helps them limit how long they will stay in that investigation before they ask for help or seek alternate approaches.

Boundaries in this way also encourage the other team members to offer to help even when their colleague may not ask - I've finished my task and.I have capacity to help, shall we pair program on yours?


Switch it up As the team lead you have to learn your team members. Some individuals do great with bug tasks where there's lots of investigations needed. Others do better with new code. Maybe this 'underperformance' you are seeing is just a mismatch of task to natural skillset. Explore that by changing up the kinds of tasks this person takes on.



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