How to work with underperforming people and teams

One of the toughest things you will ever do as a creative leader is to come up with a plan and have the tough conversations with a person or team that is struggling to deliver great work. It is the leadership question I am asked the most so in this episode we will look at the different ways you need to work with an individual person versus an entire team that is struggling and the what your role as a leaders has to be in this process.

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I’ve been on the road a lot over the past few weeks and one question keeps repeating in the Q&A section of my talks. I get the question all the time – I have a person on my team or a team I inherited and they just aren’t cutting it – what can I do? This isn’t an easy topic by any means.

On the one hand, as a leader, you have to make sure that your team and the work they produce are up to the standards you set. You can’t ever apologize for this standard. But on the other hand, you have to give people a chance, you have to be human and have compassion about the way you handle any problem like this that affects people lives.

Working with a person

There are few challenges with someone who is underperforming.

The first is that everyone has to pull their own weight so you need them to be at the same standard as the rest of the team. These people can also have a negative side effect as they can frustrate or cause your best people to leave. You have to put the quality of the work and overall wellness of the team ahead of any one person. If you have a problem with an individual you want to take some time and collect some specific instances that illustrate the behavior or problem you are having with them. It is the only fair way to have a conversation like this because you need to be able to give them specific examples. Use those examples to start the conversation about what was wrong and how you think it might be better to handle them.

You don’t want this to be a meeting where you just tell them what they are doing wrong so use the 3 step coaching method we talked about in episode 48 to build a road forward.

Working with a team

There are different challenges and techniques needed for an underperforming team.

It would seem obvious but a team is a group of people and so you have a group of problems you need to work through. I’ve found that clearly setting a few important things is key – a process, standards for the work and defining who will be held accountable for those things. I do this because it sends a clear message to the team and it sets a clear bar by which the team will be judged. I have found that by doing this the first thing that will happen is that it will make everyone uncomfortable because they are now going to be held to a new standard and more is being asked of them. Some of the people will embrace and rise to this challenge – and those are the one you want to keep your eye on because they will be the foundation for where you want the team to go. Some people will resist the changes through complaining, continuing to work in the old ways or not engaging. Resistance doesn’t mean these people should be written off. Not everyone is going to change or trust easily.

Give the team 60-75 days to see how they react to this new system, see if things improve and really lean in to working with them and give them a chance. The reason why I use this method is because I want the team to decide what is going to happen to the team. Its too easy to take the lazy way out of just writing off the team or deciding who is going to be let go based on initial impressions.

Let’s discuss your leadership a little more.

The leadership challenge

This process isn’t easy whether its for a person or team is one of the hardest things you will have to go through as a leader. Give them clear and honest feedback through this process so they know how things are going. Don’t take the lazy and cowardly way out of telling them what they want to hear or telling them nothing at all. They deserve better from their leaders. Treat them the way that you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed. Hold them to those standards is going to take your leadership, determination and more than a few hard conversations. This is the part most leaders don’t like, they shy away from it and then the person and the team never improves.

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