Managing Poor Performers

This morning’s commute to work turned into a management metaphor. I cycle to work on a morning; naturally I regularly come across the same people. This morning, a few miles from home, I was caught up by one of the regulars. Sometimes I’m faster than he is, recently he’s been faster than me. Having someone catch you up is an excellent motivator – I put on a burst of speed and stayed just ahead. Over the next few miles, up one of the larger hills, ┬ádetermined to stay ahead, I went as fast as I possibly could. I’d been in the lead for the last three miles as we hit the next big hill – I was fully expecting to be overtaken as, after all, ┬árecently he has been faster than me. As he overtook I doubted my ability to keep up (I’d put too much stuff in my bag this morning), my legs turned to jelly (I hadn’t eaten right last night), uphill is much easier for him (he’s on narrower tyres than me); I watched him extend his lead leaving me further and further behind.

Putting this into the context of reviewing a poorly performing team member, there are two key lessons. The first is that competition can be very motivating if the competition is close. Each team member has to be pushing the other to improve . The second lesson is that if one person is constantly behind the rest of the team he will be demotivated. The further he slips behind the more reasons there are for going slower – all of which will be blamed on external factors. Quite often the main external factor will be the team leader’s management style, technical knowledge or project management ability (if not the width of his tyres).

This suggests a tactic for improving someone’s performance is to team them up with another developer who performs at roughly the same level. Finding something for this team to work on will be delicate – clearly you don’t want to assign them mission critical projects – and they will need a lot of support, regular code reviews and architectural help.

Contrast this to the tactic of assigning a junior programmer, say fresh from university, highly motivated, very bright, lots of raw talent, ethusiastic but with a complete lack of professional skills, to a senior programmer. The junior programmer learns the professional skills from the senior and the junior’s enthusiasm and intelligence pushes the senior to up his performance.

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