photo of a clam shell - simplicty and performance

This post is special because it stems from a question I received via email.  I think it is a great question because in tech it is very easy to meet the smart programmer that is a pain-in-the-ass to work with.

Performance is bracketed to 2 major categories, those of skill and those of behavior (one would call it attitude also).
There are situations when you are new to a company and you are offloaded trouble makers to your team, they have very good reviews, perform their job well, but are a great drain on your time as well as team motivation.
There are also cases where they are in your team, because you gave them the benefit of doubt as they cleared quite a few interviews before reaching you, but now their manager is bringing up the issue to you.
Is probation the right approach for these cases?

How do you deal with poor performers? How long will you reprobate them? Train them? Coach them?
There are lots of different approaches, and they are a changing with the times.   Even now the most common approach in most companies is to isolate the person, so that he leaves on his own OR They wait for the next series of lay-offs to address the issue.

In brief: How would you deal with a poor performer in your team? What is the right way to deal with him/her? Is there a right way?
photo of a clam shell - simplicty and performance

This is a great question and one that most managers will meet (if not more than once) at some point in their career – especially in technology companies.

Most interview processes are pretty in-depth and with enough time one can feel pretty confident in hiring a person with the skills to do the job.  However, even the best interviewers can find themselves in the situation described above.  Where you have a person who clearly has the skills, but for whatever reason their behavior has resulted in a negative impact on the team (either through morale, influencing others, or perhaps even undermining the team goals).

Being in this place as a manager is hard – mostly because if it was just the person’s work or output it would be cut and dry:  one could put them on a performance plan and manage them to the output.  However, when the issues with the person are not so objective to judge; the situation becomes much more complex.  And because of this complexity, and to answer your question – no, there isn’t a “right” way.  However below are some ideas and suggestions based on my experience with these situations that might help you deal with poor performers.


Has the person always been like this, or did something change?

This is one of the first questions I would ask in this situation.  If the person hasn’t always had attitude problems then chances are that something happened that caused them to change.  Perhaps it was a bad review, a missed promotion, or maybe even something external to work – but a change in attitude should point to some situation or incident that resulted in this shift in behavior.  If they have always been like that, though, this situation is much harder to rectify.

Do your research

If you don’t know what the event or circumstances that caused this change, then the first thing you should do is research.  Get the background on this person in an objective, unbiased way.  This is especially easy to do if you are new to the company or organization (since having conversations with lots of people in the organization is pretty normal for a new leader).

Meet with past managers, current and past coworkers, and of course the person.  Come ready with good questions that make sure not to put anyone in an awkward situation by answering them (such as, you wouldn’t want to ask, “I hear Leo’s performance was solid, but now he is so negative all the time; do you know what happened?”  Instead frame your question to focus on the positive and good things that will still help uncover the information and background on the situation.

Here are a few to get your started:

  • Tell me about [insert name here] greatest success during the time you worked together.  How did it go?  What was your relationship like during that time?
  • How has [insert name here] gone over and above in the past?  Was this typical of him or her?  Why or why not?
  • What are some areas where [insert name here] has grown since you worked together?
  • What is your favorite thing about working with [insert name here]?
  • What sort of projects or work would suit [insert name here] best?  Why?
  • What do you think is [insert name here]’s greatest strength?

This will create a fruitful conversation and give you a lot of background while not putting the other person in a situation where they feel like they are judging the person in question.  And if the person has anything to say about changes or differences it will likely come up naturally with these questions.


Tell me, I'll forget.  Show me, I may remember.  But involve me and I will understand - chinese proverb

Difficult conversations

Once you understand the background a bit more, then the trick is to address that situation and change head on with the individual.  If you are new a manager, this may be easier since you have a clean slate and the chance to build trust again.  My experience is that in these situations, everyone knows what is going on – but often times having a really direct conversations about the person’s performance because the elephant in the room.  It is hard to talk about difficult topics, and even harder to do so in an empathetic and productive way.

Below is a framework I like to used for these sort of situations:

Q. Tell me about what you think is going well for you here at [insert company name].

Wait and make sure they answer.  If the answer isn’t truthful or the person tries to hand wave over the real issues (which is often the case) then dive in further.

Q.  Well it seems from my view that you are unhappy.  I have noticed that you aren’t as engaged and sometimes you are downright negative.  Why do you think that might be? 

Again wait for an answer.  Sometimes you will have to just be silent until the person responds, or elaborates past a one-sentence answer.  Let the silence work to your advantage and just wait until the person responds and elaborates – no one likes uncomfortable silence but if you prepare for it then it can help precipitate constructive and authentic conversations.

Q.  How do you think your actions/attitude is impacting those around you?

Some people will have insight into this question, but some people can lack self-awareness and it will be your responsibility to educate them on their influence and impact on others.   I would recommend you to have 2-3 good examples that you witness directly, or that you have express permission to share (if you don’t, then you may want to skip the explanation since you won’t build rapport with unsupportable generalizations).

Q.  What could you do to improve/change your situation?

By asking this question you are empowering them to solve their own problems.  Try not to fall into the trap of “how can I help you?” which allows the person to stay the victim of their circumstances.

I try to keep asking open-ended questions with lots of whys.  The goal here is not necessarily to solve the problem, but to understand it and help the person feel heard, and hopefully understood.  Therefore it helps to take notes of key statements or phrases, and even repeat them back in the conversation to ensure understanding.  I also strongly recommend sending the notes out in writing afterward.  This is helpful because not everyone can absorb verbal instructions, and it also creates a written record of your discussions.


Align interests

Once you have a handle on the background and have taken the time to understand the different points of view then the next step is to figure out how to correct the problem (if you don’t believe they can correct their behavior, then skip down to What happens without change?]).

Unlike technical or cognitive skills, attitude and social problems are harder to correct.  In my experience the only time I have been successful in improving the conduct someone with a bad attitude, or emotional baggage at the office, was when he or she was fully committed to making the necessary changes.

The easiest and best way to achieve alignment and get buy-in is to outline the changes with the individual’s desires and career goals.  Hopefully you have had some career discussions, or have asked them some questions to derive what motivates them and why they are working at your company (since hopefully there are other reasons besides the paycheck).  Chances are they may want to get promoted, or recognized, and that those goals are a great path to help you leadership and team.

Using this information build a plan that will help them improve and progress toward their long-term goals. You can use coaching tools like 360 reviews (good for enlightening those that lack self-awareness), enlist a coach specialized in emotional intelligence, or even just find good reading material the two of you can review together.  I do everything I can to turn these subjective “areas for improvement” into objective, and if possible measurable, outcomes.  For example, instead of saying “Improve relationships with teammates”, I might transform that statement into “Have technical disagreements with teammates without saying disparaging remarks”.  I try to make each statement actionable and clear (and in writing).


Raise your expectations

One of the challenges in these situations is that the person is often performing their duties at work; the employee in question is going through the motions and doing enough not to get fired.  If this is the case, don’t be afraid to raise your expectations. The way you conduct yourself, and your attitude can easily be made a part of job performance.

When people start to get comfortable or lax in their role and responsibilities, I have like to instantiate a conversation about renewed expectations in our regular meetings.  I often tell all the members of my team that I expect them to not just do their jobs, but to exceed expectations.

Of course, make it clear to them how to do this in their role.  Would exceeding mean more output?  Greater influence over decisions?  Contributions to operations or process?  If you work on these goals together hopefully you can identify areas that are both interesting to the person and beneficial to the company.


Follow up and check-in

While conversations, goals, and write-ups are all good tools, it is absolutely critical that you plan (and schedule) regular meeting times to go over progress (or lack thereof).  Make sure you don’t miss these appointments, and prepare ahead of time.  Preparation may mean reviewing their work (like code check-ins), syncing up with their teammates and peers, or even just reviewing the goals and plans you laid out together.

It helps to write-up very direct feedback after these meetings to reinforce progress, setbacks, or other relevant updates to the discussion.  I like to have these conversations weekly, but you can pick the cadence that matches the situation.

If part of the problem is that the person you are working with doesn’t take feedback well, don’t let it stop you.  It is easy to give up when suggestions or met with diatribes on mistakes and all the reasons they don’t agree, but don’t!   Be the bigger person, stay steadfast to your point of view, and keep giving the feedback – you are their advocate and coach.


What happens without change?

So how do you know how long to coach?  When do you give up?  Generally if the person is showing commitment and signs of progress it is worthwhile to keep working with them.  Good people are hard to find, and hire, and if the person commits to changing – then you and them could end up better after the experience.

However, if the person is not holding up their end of the commitment, or if I truly don’t believe they are capable of changing (which again is almost always seated in that person’s desire to change) then I will start planning to let them go, or manage them out.  As their manager you need to truly believe in their success, or they will be dead in the water – you should be invested.  If you can’t be, then perhaps it is best they work for someone else that believes in them (since a fresh slate and clean start can do amazing things for a person), or that they leave the organization.

In general, once you decide parting ways is the best outcome, then it also follows that the sooner you take action the better.  The person is negatively impacting your team, and culture, and so it serves everyone to remove them from the organization.  I can honestly say that I have never let anyone go and wished I had waited – every single time I wished I had done it earlier.


Hopefully that answers you question!  Like most situations involving humans, emotions, and attitudes there never is a right answer.  Please leave any other ideas, tips or suggestions in the comments.


Best of luck!



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