How to deal with a personnel problem on your project team when you're not the functional manager

Frequently, a person's talents drive him to work in certain areas where he excels. In other cases, the individual talents of a person and the job he performs are not aligned. Sometimes this lack of alignment can be overcome with hard work and motivation. Unfortunately, sometimes the gap can't be closed. This is when you have to deal with the individual as a performance problem.

As a project manager, you don't usually have total management control over your team members. You share responsibility with the team member's functional manager. However, this doesn't mean you're powerless to work with team members who aren't meeting expectations. In fact, developing and managing team members are key responsibilities of a project manager.

So, how do you deal with the team members that are not meeting expectations? Try this approach.

1. Give immediate feedback. Remember that performance feedback should be provided immediately after you observe a problem. This allows it to have maximum impact. 2. Gather your facts. This feedback shouldn't be generic or vague. It also shouldn't be based on what someone else said. The feedback should be based on your observations only. For instance, if the person isn't meeting deadlines, be prepared to point to several examples of missed deadlines. If he's disruptive, relate specific instances where you observed this behavior. 3. Meet in person. Once you have the facts, have a preliminary performance discussion. There are three targeted objectives to this meeting:
  • To make the employee aware of the perceived performance problem. To be fair, he may not realize that there is a problem.
  • To get the employee's feedback and response to your observations.
  • To determine a short-term action plan. This is critical and will be the key to turning the performance around.

This discussion is valuable for both the project manager and the team member. There are a number of reasons why a team member's performance may not be up to expectations. Some, such as personal problems, may be short-lived.  

4. Escalate to the functional manager. It's been my experience that the preliminary, fact-based discussion was enough to turn the situation around, with there being no need for follow-up. However, if the problems continue, your next course of action is to bring the situation to the attention of the team member's functional manager. The functional manager can provide further guidance, and may well have to get involved to try to resolve the problem. For some team members this might mean being removed from the project team, developing a performance plan, or even being fired. These are options available to the functional manager but usually out of the realm of the project manager.

Performance problems on your project team may not be totally within your control, but you have options. You can work with the team member to try to resolve the situation and then escalate the problem if necessary.