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Improving Individual Performance

Your ability to manage projects to successful conclusion is partly determined by your ability to influence others to do the work you assign them to do, and your ability to influence them to do it well and on time. While your ability to break work down into appropriate work packages and organize the work is important, this planning is wasted if you can’t get the team to execute your plan.

There are 2 different reasons for a team member not delivering the work given them on time: an inability to deliver and an unwillingness to deliver. An inability to deliver usually indicates that you have selected the person to fill the role. Your remedies are either to replace the person, or provide them with formal training, mentoring, and coaching to bring them up to speed. This article deals with the second reason which is usually far more complex and messy than the first. Here are 9 steps to address unwillingness to perform.

  1. Gather evidence. How is the team member demonstrating an unwillingness to perform? Evidence may be direct such as the team member confronting you, or it may be more subtle for example persistently missing deadlines. Where the team member openly disagrees with you or is otherwise confrontational you’ll know right away. Where the team member is more subtle, you’ll have to dig a little bit. How many times have they missed a deadline? By how much does their quality miss the benchmarks set for them? Try to gather the facts that bear out your suspicion the team member is unwilling to perform.
  2. Schedule a face to face meeting with the team member. Let the team member know the reason for the meeting and that the objective is to determine whether they are unwilling to perform the work assigned them and if so, why. The meeting can be held in their work space (their home turf), a meeting room (neutral ground), or your office (your home turf), depending on whether you want to set them at ease, set you both at ease, or send a message of authority. Do not hold the meeting where there is an audience. Repeat the meeting purpose and objective before you begin the meeting
  3. Marshal the facts you have gathered and write them down. This is the information you need to review with the team member in your meeting. You should be in command of these facts and be ready to recite them to the team member.
  4. Find the reason (or Root Cause) of the unwillingness. Should the unwillingness turn out to be based on the team member’s unwillingness to perform, address the problem as I’ve described above. Reasons for unwillingness usually have to do with the team member’s lack of trust in the project plan. They may believe that the way the work has been defined is flawed, or that your approach is wrong, that they have not been given sufficient time to perform the work, or they don’t have the correct tools to perform the work. Get to the Root Cause by asking "why” as often as it takes. Stop when the answer doesn’t change.
  5. Evaluate the reasons they give you. This calls for some on the spot decision making. Do not view every disagreement as a challenge to your authority that must be annihilated. If the team member has a political reason for their unwillingness, or they don’t have a command of the facts, it is appropriate to address this at this meeting. Otherwise, you’ll need to go away and investigate their views to determine if they have any validity. Schedule a follow up meeting after a reasonable period of time in which to investigate their claims. Should their claims be valid, change your plans accordingly.
  6. Hold a Performance Review meeting when there is no valid reason for their unwillingness to perform. Invalid reasons include political reasons, selfish reasons (i.e. they feel they should be doing your job, or someone else’s job, or they feel their friend should be doing your job). Be assertive. Let the team member understand that your job comes with the authority to correct their performance (make sure it does first). Review your performance expectations: type of work, deadlines, quality, etc., their past performance, and the gap between the two. Then give them a schedule for correcting their performance and meeting your expectations. Have them agree to the plan, either by verbally agreeing, or by signing a written copy of the plan. In either case, you need to capture the plan in written form for future reference.
  7. Hold a Follow up meeting when you identify a need to improve your project plans. The objective for this meeting is the same as for the Performance Review meeting but the path to the objective differs. Review the project plan changes with the team member, and then identify your performance expectations and a reasonable amount of time to achieve them. Have the team member agree to the plan, either by verbally agreeing, or by signing a written copy of the plan. In either case, create a written copy of the plan for future reference. When the team member has provided you with information that improves your project plan, don’t forget to thank them for their input.
  8. Track their progress to the plan. This will tell you whether you have succeeded in overcoming the unwillingness. Team members who have will improve their performance, team members who haven’t will not change their performance.
  9. Schedule a follow up meeting to review status. The follow up meeting will be a disciplinary session where performance has not changed. It will be a "thank you” session where it has, and it will be a remedial session where performance has improved somewhat, but still is not where it needs to be. Consult your organization’s HR group before any disciplinary measures. These may be someone else’s responsibility or may need to be performed according to HR rules and guidelines. Make sure your team member understands their efforts to improve are appreciated where that effort has been demonstrated, even where further improvement is required.

Dealing with a project team requires a mix of patience and authority. There are those team members who need to be reminded that you are in charge and that the project environment is a benign dictatorship, not a democracy. There are those team members who are senior, have more experience working on the type of project being undertaken and whose advice should be listened to. Being able to distinguish between the two types and handling them appropriately is essential to your ability to influence the team. Remember that it all starts with communicating your plan. Don’t be a "stealth” project manager revealing the plan in dribs and drabs so that team members have misconceptions, communicate your plans (even the parts that don’t affect the team members you are dealing with) and ensure everyone understands the plan and their role in it. Being an effective communicator will avoid a lot of the performance problems I’ve described above and circumvent the 9 steps.