CXO

Dealing with 'Billy' and other marginal project team performers

Managing a marginal performer is like driving around with your parking brake engaged--you'll probably reach your destination, but not without some friction and possible damage. Heed this advice on managing such staffers.


If you have a team member who isn’t performing at the level you would like, blame it on the fact that you have a range of personalities on your team. Maybe, instead of removing the person from your team, you should see such performers as a challenge to your management skills.

That’s one of the suggestions offered by TechRepublic members in response to a recent article by columnist Tom Mochal about releasing a marginal performer from your project team. Several members offered anecdotes about working with team members who don’t always perform as well as expected. Surprisingly, many of our members seemed to have more empathy than contempt for “Billy,” the fictitious marginal performer in the article. These are some of their suggestions, taken from e-mails and a threaded discussion.

Treat the situation as a management challenge
Customize your leadership style to deal with people who don’t perform like you expect them to. They might surprise you with their capabilities. “In many cases, they just need more individual attention,” wrote Mike Caldwell, a content management manager at Thomas Scientific in Philadelphia,. “Besides, wouldn’t it be boring if you had all performers on your team?”

Consultant and TechRepublic contributor Terryn Barill suggested that additional managing could bring a poor performer around. If you’re a manager, make sure you give your team members a chance to speak up if they feel they can’t handle the job.

“This is also why we plan all our projects as modules,” Barill wrote. “If someone is really hurting the whole team, it provides a natural break point to make team changes.”

Tim D IL said that his struggle with Attention Deficit Disorder has meant that he required more management than most of his colleagues. In other instances, a team member’s contributions might be perceived as marginal if the worker has been given unrealistic goals, according to Gary Pellett, an electrical engineer and a network engineer: “Before managers start kicking their staff around, they’d better make sure that they haven’t set an unobtainable goal for anybody.”

Another member, Benyo, suggested that for every team, there will always be a “Billy.” While it’s imperative to give such team members a chance (and an opportunity to improve), it could also be true that such workers offer nothing for their teams. It’s the manager’s role to tell the difference between someone who is trying and a team member who is just lazy.

Account for skills, company needs
If a team hangs on to a marginal performer, often it can be to preserve the team’s “rhythm,” said Stu Kopelman. In some cases, the “marginal” team member will have excellent technical skills but weak communication skills.

“At some point in each of our lives, we have all been marginal performers,” he said. “No one gets it right all the time.”

Finally, many businesses are interested in filling a need regardless of the team member’s capabilities. “The employer does not take the time to hone in on what else the performer is capable of, and so this not only starves the company of better and faster service, but immediately places Billy on the lowest end of his ability scale, ” Kopelman wrote.

Think before you release
Before you decide to take someone off a project team, consider the effect on the remaining team members. Paul Ku, a corporate trainer, goes so far as to suggest that the rest of the team’s input be sought before a decision is made. He also suggested that you consider:
  • How replacing the team member will affect team duties.
  • Whether other team members perceive a problem.
  • Whether replacing the team member would be a greater inconvenience than the original problem.

“Displacing people should only be used when all improvement efforts are proven futile,” IT_pro wrote. “A 'Billy' is still an asset in the organization, and they can perform, provided the opportunity.”

Long-time TechRepublic contributor and IT consultant Rick Freedman agreed that bringing performance issues to the team’s attention is one method of helping a poor performer along. Often, the team will come up with more innovative solutions collectively than a manager trying to address the problem on his or her own. “While managers have the ultimate power to offer promotions, raises, or recognition, most technical contributors are more interested in how our teammates perceive us,” he wrote.

Remember to see the positive
Member kschlund said that in her 19 years in IT, most of the “Billys” she’s managed have had good attitudes and have been happy and enthusiastic. “Look for the good in everyone,” she said. “It is there if you’re a talented enough manager to find and utilize it.”

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