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Dealing with underperformance is tough. Here are some ways to make it easier on you, the individual, and the team.

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One of the most difficult parts of becoming a manager is learning how to respond when a direct report is underperforming. It’s ultimately your responsibility to figure out how to address and resolve the problem for the person and the team.

Managing underperformance is a critical situation. Some managers might go years before having to face a serious situation of underperformance in their team. For me, I had to face the challenge early on in my management career, in my first role as an engineering manager. I knew at the time the experience would shape who I would become as a manager, but the fear of getting it wrong and hurting another person’s career weighed heavily on me. I cared for the person and I knew the experience would be tough on them.

Throughout the process, I learned three principles that helped me navigate this difficult situation, and similar situations since: being clear is kind; trust yourself; use your support network.

Let’s break these principles down.

1. Being clear is kind

Here’s one principle I wish I’d known earlier: ‘Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.’

This is a quote from Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead, and though it sounds simple, it contains a lot. When managing underperformance, being clear and candid about your expectations is essential for productive conversations.

I learned this the hard way by making the mistake of not being clear enough. To correct this, my report and I had to have many difficult conversations, time and again, to clarify what the expectations were, and how they translated across the goals we’d set in performance plans, and the feedback they’d received.

Being clear is hard, but it’s essential to ensure expectations are well understood by all, including yourself. Being unclear creates misalignment and hurt, and causes you and your report to spend more time focusing on the details of the process, rather than focusing on what you can do to help them, and actioning it.

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2. Trust yourself

As a new manager, it’s easy to look for external data or validation that you’re taking the right steps and making the right decisions. When you know and care about the underperforming person, it’s natural to want to look for evidence that you’re doing the right thing.

However, looking for external validation shouldn’t take over the work of building a strong opinion of your own. This is your responsibility and duty as a people manager. Not trusting yourself can lead to lengthy, stressful situations where you’re constantly searching for more or ‘the right’ data. I’ve fallen into this trap before and it was a painful lesson to learn.

You can – and should – talk to other engineering managers for additional perspective and to ground your thinking, but ultimately you must own the process and any final decisions. Not trusting yourself can create a bad environment for all involved. And worse, it can lead to an underperforming person living in limbo.

Don’t let this happen. It’s dangerous and unfair on the person, of course, but it also negatively impacts the rest of the team. Someone else will have to pick up the slack for the underperforming person, and that comes at a cost. You might hope the problem will resolve itself on its own, but stalling risks doing serious hurt to the person and the team.

3. Use your support network

Managing underperformance can be mentally difficult for managers, as well as the person themselves. Things can get particularly hard in serious cases when you’re facing performance plans, or parting ways.

As a manager, it’s important to find a community or support network that you can talk to. You’re carrying an emotional burden and you need a healthy outlet for it. You can’t support the underperforming person if you yourself aren’t feeling supported, and in a healthy mindset.

Having a support network in your organization is fantastic because you can freely and confidentially share without needing to translate industry terminology. For me, I connected with another people manager in my company who had been through the same experience before. To be able to share my anxiety and worries with another person who could empathize was invaluable.

If there isn’t another person with these experiences to talk to in your company, you can look externally. For example, you can find other people managers (including me) to talk to in LeadDev’s own Slack channel. Being an engineering manager can be isolating, as your team is made up of reports rather than peers. You must be more intentional in building your peer group and a network that you can rely on. They can help you stay healthy in these stressful situations.

Reflections

There’s no denying that dealing with underperformance is tough, whether you’re a first-time manager or a seasoned EM. Great managers care deeply for their reports, and want them to succeed. They know the challenges in their lives, their plans, and their goals. All of this can weigh on you to ‘get it right’ for everyone. But the right outcome is rarely the easiest one.

Having tough, honest conversations is never easy, but the more you practice, the better you’ll become at avoiding the common pitfalls and learning from them. The principles I’ve shared here helped me learn from the experience, and I hope they’ll help you too.

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