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I am a team leader of a team of six women. One of them has been working for twenty years in the firm and is used to saying whatever she wants. In the past five years the company has been introducing the lean method in order to measure and improve the ways we work.

Now that her job is measured, her under performance is not longer invisible. It also appears that she rarely has the job completed by the set deadline. When I confronted her with these findings, she explained that she always feels that she has too much work on her plate which I feel isn't true. When other team members replace her, they manage to do all her job and have some time left. So in fact she is really under performing. When confronting her with this again and asking how this could be solved, she always finds reasons to explain that she is not under performing and that everyone is happy about the tasks she is doing. She claims that we need an extra person in the group.

When she had to write her end evaluation, she only mentions the things that she did well.

So on one hand she is under performing, on the other hand she can't evaluate herself objectively.

In addition to this, she is always arguing about anything. She can never accept anything and will always go the opposite direction. She can also give her unsalted opinion on the way I conduct a situation or issue. She is always challenging me, which is really tiring, especially when I don't expect it to happen. She doesn't know her place.

As she feels that this situation has to change, and that I will no longer accept all of this, she has started to gain the sympathy of the colleagues on a very refined way. She made the colleagues believe that she is the victim, and that I don't like her, etc'. So although her colleagues know that she is under performing, I feel that they are treating her as a victim.

How do I handle this without losing the energy and trust of other team members?

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    very adept editing, Condingo. kudos. – dwoz Nov 16 '15 at 0:24
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    "She doesn't know her place." Sounds like she knows it better than you do. – Amy Blankenship Nov 20 '15 at 16:15

10 Answers 10

11

How do I handle this without losing the energy of the other team members?

First, you need to treat them as a team. Whose idea was it that she is "underperforming"? If it was yours, then you don't treat them as a team. If you are unhappy with the team performance then talk to the team. If they are happy with the workload distribution and find other ways to improve, then it should not be your problem. If you measure single individuals, you are destroying the team if it ever was one.

Second, do you have an independent measurement? It's easy to determine that one person is faster than the next. But is the quality the same? And if so, do you have any indication that it's one person being bad? Or could it be that the other person is just damn good? You measured 6 people, one of them has to be last. The Seahawks lost the Superbowl, but I would not call them "underperforming" and fire them from the league. They were good, but the other team was better. That will happen if you pit them against each other and that's what happens when you measure people. One will be last.

So if the team thinks she is a liability, you should sit down with her (and preferably the team) and you should work out what needs improvement. If that does not work, get formal PIP help from HR.

Some of your words make me think you are not really thinking of your group as a team. Maybe you should ask yourself what it is, that should make you a team. She is challenging you. Why should she not? If your answer is "authority", then you are not a team. You need to find out what the answer to this question is.

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    This is an incredibly good response, and frankly gives me hope that at least some workplaces have some understanding of human beings. – Benjamin R Nov 15 '15 at 21:17
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    You can measure an individual without destroying the team. There is a clear difference between disruptive and constructive questioning. Consistently misses agreed upon targets is a fair measure. On the off season the Seahalks coaches and management evaluated many positions without input from the team (as did every other team). – paparazzo Nov 15 '15 at 21:25
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    Re:"is faster than the next. But is the quality the same". Do not overlook the importance of that statement. I've worked with some really "fast" developers before. Some so fast to the point where management would criticize others for being so slow. Of course, those really fast developers would inevitably still be fixing bugs on their project while everyone else had long since sold off their working software and were busy working other projects. Those cases put quite a bit of mud in those manager's faces and rightfully so. – Dunk Nov 17 '15 at 23:35
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    I don't agree, even if the team is meeting the targets it doesn't mean everything is going well. It could be that some are working extra hard to finish her tasks. It is imperative to see if everyone contribute their share. Though someone must be "last", you still need to check why that person is "last" and how you can motivate that person. – Sigal Shaharabani Nov 19 '15 at 12:26
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Hopefully you have a PIP (performance improvement plan). Get with HR and put her on a formal written PIP. It appears she does not respect you. Have your boss and/or HR present when the PIP is presented.

I would not worry about losing the energy of the other team members. If you let her get away without performing you will lose their respect.

7

I have to respectfully disagree with some of the other answers.

You are team lead, you have tried more than once to resolve it internally with no luck, so escalate it, that's the correct way to handle it. You have a discipline problem without the authority to enforce measures to control it, so take it to someone who does. That's your role. I'm assuming that as team lead you know what you're looking at when you say she is underperforming, so I'm not going to go down that track and question that aspect.

Short sharp shock to combat twenty years of complacency is the best remedy I can think of. Otherwise as you indicated it becomes demoralising to the team as a whole since they're taking sides and it will get worse and undermine your own control and ultimately make you look like an ineffectual team leader to those in charge.

3

She needs to start performing better, or she needs to be replaced. To accomplish that, you need to tell her that.

As a manager it's your job to assemble a team of motivated and skilled high-performers. The recent changes in how performance is analysed is a good way of finally starting on that path.

First order of business: plan a meeting with this individual, outline the problems she has, explain that you need her to perform better in this role. Mention specific things she needs to improve on like meeting deadlines or reporting early with valid reasons why the deadline can't be met. Explain that you need to see improvement in this in X amount of time (a few weeks/months depending on the work, project cycle etc.). Explain that her job is at risk if she can't improve on this.

Then, hope that she improves and that she maintains that improvement. If she doesn't by the assigned time, meet with her again. Go through the whole spiel and give her a final chance to improve. Make it very clear that you'll have to replace her if she doesn't show noticeable signs of improvement. If she doesn't improve after that, fire her.

If she turns combative or toxic at any point in the process, that's a clear sign to either accelerate the time-line or, preferably, cut her loose immediately. She'll poison your entire department if you let it continue. Frankly, what you describe already sounds like that, but if you never addresses her performance concerns straight up before then you can't just jump straight to firing her.

Once she's let go, explain to the rest of your staff that she had some performance issues and despite working on them for X amount of time, you didn't see the improvement you wanted and therefore decided to replace her. Check with HR beforehand to figure out what you can and can't say about people you've fired. If HR or company policy requires jumping through hoops before people can be fired, such as the use of a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), make sure you follow those from the start of the process.

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    @dwoz Whatever the history the employee has is largely irrelevant. There are very few valid reasons for a manager to keep an under-performing employee on staff. Allowing a substandard employee to get by with minimal work is a disservice to the company and the employee. – Lilienthal Nov 16 '15 at 8:52
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    Ordinarily this would be a valid approach. However, the OP mentions that this employee has already started to enlist others to her "cause." You should NOT do a one-on-one meeting in these conditions. You should have a senior director and/or an HR representative present, convey this to her as a team, and present her with a formal, WRITTEN performance improvement plan. A 1:1 meeting will only pour gas on the fire, now. – Wesley Long Nov 16 '15 at 16:37
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    You sound like Alison at askamanager.org :) – thursdaysgeek Nov 16 '15 at 16:39
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    @dwoz I am not encouraging such draconian measures as you're imagining, I'm just of the opinion that an optimal team will be composed of people who enjoy their work and are good at it. The OP is not describing a mediocre employee but someone who is either horribly unsuited to her position or who has given up any semblance of work ethic. An ideal manager would be transparent about his expectations and foster an environment where people would be allowed to excel at their work and given the resources to do so. I would call that the opposite of a toxic environment. Firing is an extreme measure. – Lilienthal Nov 16 '15 at 17:24
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    @dwoz companies where poorly and non-performing employees are routinely coddled are also universally hated by their competent employees, who tend to leave. – thursdaysgeek Nov 16 '15 at 20:43
2

Have you considered whether the way you are measuring her performance might not be telling the whole story? It seems obvious that she disagrees with the objective measurement of her value to the company. You could ask her specifically why she feels it doesn't reflect her real performance, and listen instead of assuming she's making excuses.

She has 20 years experience in the firm, but you're using a measurement methodology that was designed for start-ups. Maybe she misses her deadlines because others need her help and experience to meet theirs? Do you truly understand everything she does and not just what she's assigned to do?

Now, I don't know the situation, and it could be that she's managed to hold on to her job for two decades without contributing much value. I've always found however, that when I'm confronted with a problem like this it helps to take a step back and think about how I could change what I'm doing to make things better.

You might be able to get her to make improvements if you take the approach of working with her to make sure that the measurement technique reflects what she feels is her real performance. Go through the measurements, and collaborate with her on ways to improve them. Maybe she needs to be tracking her work differently, but doesn't understand the system well enough to realize it.

I've found that many people are confrontational and argumentative when they feel like they aren't being listened to. If you start working with her instead of trying to force her to change, things might get better. She does have a lot of experience that you might benefit from. It sounds like it won't be easy to do because the current situation seems pretty bad, but when you make people feel like you value their input, often they will be more open to compromise. If the only feedback you're giving her is negative, you are contributing to the problem. Surely there's something she does well that you can recognize?

I would talk to her and find one area to improve. Explain how the measurement works, and work together to figure out how she can make that measurement better. Telling her that the numbers say she's not doing a good job when other folks are telling her they're happy with what she's doing isn't going to work. It would be better to focus on improving one objective measurement and find specific things she can do that will make the number better. If she refuses to take any steps to improve, then you need to do what some of the other answers have recommended and start the process with HR to replace her.

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Tom DeMarco in "Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams" states that such kinds of performance evaluations are inherently dangerous to teams.

For example, I assume that I need about 100% more time to write a software requirement specification for a module than the "new" guy. This is not that after the years my fingers ache or my eyes are not good, but because after 11 years I know all the company-specific quirks and problems that need to be covered. So if you gave me and the other guy the task to write two specifications I would say:"No can do, I only manage one in that time" and the other guy would write them. Without assessing the fact that the new guy managed to change the software in a way that required an update of the testing equipment in 9 production plants distributed over the world, you will never be able to properly evaluate who performed well.

So, let's look at the core problem:

You set a deadline.
The employee tells you that (s)he can't do it in that time frame for whatever reason.
You insist on the deadline, dismissing the reason.

There are now exactly two reactions you will get from any employee.

The shy ones who will deliver crap in time, where some manager can set the checkbox that it was delivered in time and that blows up later, when nobody cares, because "later" is not part of any evaluation.

The experienced, bold ones who will say:"No can do."

Seriously, what do you think caused the Volkswagen emission crisis?

This is exactly about this - engineers that tell their manager:"No can do with that deadline." and managers ignoring this, because every employee is just too lazy to fulfill the management goals. If engineers are forced to honor an arbitrary deadline, this is the end result.

0

Have you thought about putting her on performance review and outline deliverables for improvement that she needs to meet to keep her job? She may need to be encouraged to change roles because she stagnating or her skills no longer fit the role. Or perhaps she needs an education opportunity to improve her skills?

Or incentivize the team for surpassing benchmarks. Time is always a great reward; a half day on a Friday, ability to work from home, etc. are great motivators.

0

I am very surprised that I'm the first to bring this up, maybe it's buried in another response.

I see in your profile that you are from Belgium, and maybe English isn't your first language or maybe the business culture is very different there, but if I was your boss and saw this post worded the way it is, I would wonder if you were the right person to fill a supervisory role.

You identify the team as "six women", which isn't wrong by itself, but combined with statements like "She doesn't know her place." and the amount it bothers you that she is challenging your authority, it may be a good idea to do some introspection about the way you relate to women in the workplace. If it turns out that you come off as hostile, that's something you'll have to change. Otherwise, you will continually face teams that are united against you.

You have to expect that if someone has been in the same role for 20 years and you come in with a wave of large changes that can feel threatening to any employee, that you will face some resistance and that those with the deepest ingrained habits may be the slowest to change. Your job is to earn respect and guide your employees through the transition. It could be that she'll never meet you half way and will end up leaving, however maybe if you change your approach you'll find there was a reason she was kept around for the couple decades.

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You need to carefully decide what you want to accomplish. If you want her to work harder, that is probably a forlorn hope. If you want her to stop challenging you and be more deferential, that is probably achievable. If you want her to not be bad mouthing you to the other employees, that is definitely doable. Just be perfectly clear with yourself what you want to achieve.

As far as respect is concerned, the next time she gives you back talk, take the next private opportunity to bring it up with her. "Sasha, in the meeting yesterday you were being kind of hard on me." Use humor and be lightweight, just let her know you expect more action and less talk. Note that often when a boss has a problem like this, it is an indication that THEY are talking to much. Personally, I give all my orders via extremely explicit emails so I never get backtalk ever, except in written form. Be wary of yaking at people. A good boss minimizes chatter.

As far as her maneuvering against you socially, this is only possible because you are alienating other employees so they are receptive to what she is saying. If you arrange things so that other employees depend on Sasha, then you win both ways. If she supports them, then she is doing her job. If she lets them down, then you win socially because they will form a dislike of her and stop listening to her calumnies. Either way you win. The only way to lose is to just boss everybody around while not backing anybody up. In that kind of environment a weasel will flourish.

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I've been in exactly your situation, though probably in a different business milieu. Here's what you need to do: take this employee into a meeting, and have a third party there with you (HR). Tell the employee that "the metrics we use have changed, and you need to engage with that." Tell the employee that she needs to understand that the new metrics emphasize THIS over THAT, and reward THIS over THAT. Tell her that she needs to pay attention to this, and figure out how to navigate the new landscape. Tell her that you're a RESOURCE, not an ADVERSARY, and that she can flourish under this new meaasurement system, if she pays heed and gives it its due. If she's smart and a survivor, she will get the message and will "make it so." If she's not smart, or she's ok with doing an exit because the new regime doesn't suit her, she will do that instead.

Give Her The Benefit Of The Doubt, and let it be her decision.

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