Don't wait to address performance problems on a project

Managing people is one of the core responsibilities of a project manager. It's also one that's uncomfortable for many. Dealing with problem people is one of the difficult aspects of managing team members.

Most project managers have had to deal with performance problems on a project at one point in their careers. Such issues are usually uncomfortable adventures for the project manager. This uncomfortable feeling usually has two causes:

  • The project manager is usually not the functional manager of the team member and therefore does not have total authority for personnel management.
  • The project manager usually doesn't have the right level of experience or training to effectively deal with people problems.

In fact, many experienced personnel managers will tell you that dealing with performance problems are the hardest aspects of their job. It's even more problematic for a typical project manager.

The first reaction of many project managers is to ignore a performance problem and hope that it goes away. It's possible that the situation will take care of itself, but unfortunately, this usually isn't the case.

A project manager's second reaction is typically to recognize the problem but try to determine whether the project can still complete successfully in spite of the performance problems. Again, sometimes that may be the case, but ignoring the situation rarely works.

After all, the nature of a performance problem is that a person is missing deadlines and commitments. (If the person were meeting end dates, the team member still might be causing problems — but not of a performance nature.)

Of course, people can miss a deadline for a variety of reasons, and that alone doesn't raise the situation to the level of a performance problem. A "performance problem" occurs when a team member is repeatedly late, delivers at an unacceptable quality level, or chronically misses other expectations.

If a project manager believes a team member is having performance problems, the first reaction should be to meet with the team member one-on-one. In this discussion, the manager can discuss his or her perceptions of the employee's behavior and its effects on the project. The discussion should remain fact-based, and the project manager should have a number of examples of when the team member missed expectations.

This discussion needs to be two-sided. One of the benefits of the first meeting is that the manager can share concerns, and the employee has a chance to tell his or her side of the story.

You never know how these first discussions will progress. Sometimes they're difficult and don't accomplish what you hope. However, in many cases, the team member agrees with the project manager and offers reasons for missing expectations.

Once you better understand the causes of the problems, you may be in a better position to help fix them. For instance, there may be some skill gaps that you can use training or mentoring to address. There may also be some personal problems that may require special accommodation on the part of the project manager.

In many cases, the fact that a meeting is necessary will be enough to motivate the team member to do better in the future. The meeting should end with some concrete follow-up commitments for addressing the problem. This could include actions from both the project manager and team member.

If the project manager and team member can agree on some follow-up actions, then you might consider the meeting to be a success. If you can't agree on a common set of follow-up activities, then further escalation up to the functional manager may be necessary. 

Managing people is one of the core responsibilities of a project manager. It's also one that's uncomfortable for many. Dealing with problem people is one of the difficult aspects of managing team members.

One of the best strategies for managing people problems is to address them early before they escalate. If you can successfully address a problem early, it may save you much more aggravation and pain associated with having to deal with a chronic problem later. 

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