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How to Identify and Support Underperforming Engineers

Learn the art of addressing underperforming engineers so you can support them in building their motivations, skills, and experience.

By Kate Dagher  •   December 19, 2022  •   8 min read

Once you move into an engineering management position, you’ll come across individuals who are, unfortunately, underperforming. Through various situations and circumstances, underperforming engineers surface—whether from mis-hiring, a junior engineer struggling to grow into their role, or a normally strong-performing employee struggling. There are particular ways that you can deal with underperforming engineers in each kind of scenario so you can work on getting their performances up to par. 

For that reason, this article will cover how to deal with underperforming engineers and walk you through some reasons engineers on your team might be underperforming.  

How to deal with underperforming engineers 

1Identify the cause 

Before you can actually start working to help underperforming engineers, you first need to understand the cause. Without understanding why underperformance is occurring, you can’t support, alleviate, or solve the performance. The process of identifying the true nature of the cause tends to be the most difficult part of dealing with underperforming engineers. The underperforming could be caused by burnout, misalignment, personal problems, a lack of support from peers, missing skills, or not feeling sufficiently challenged.

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2Foster alignment

Foster alignment throughout your team to ensure everyone is on the same page and truly understands the goal they’re working towards. Team alignment ensures that everyone is on the same page, collective goals are achieved, and the team benefits from productive outcomes. When you foster alignment, you ensure that the developers are all clear on how to work towards a common goal together. Make sure to meet with your team regularly to discuss any confusion and address any lack of clarity sooner rather than later. This way, your teammates can move forward confidently, knowing that they’re on the same page as their coworkers. 

3Delegate responsibility

Another way that is effective in dealing with underperforming engineers is to delegate responsibility. Delegating responsibility to members of your team on whom you can count is an important skill to master, especially if you have an underperforming engineer and need some extra support. Not only does doing so help to empower your team and build trust with one another, but it can also grow personal development as others are given new tasks to accomplish. Delegating can also instill advanced knowledge as colleagues are given new responsibilities where they can develop their skill sets. With Fellow, you can easily delegate and track action items across your meetings, add tasks in the action items section, or sync them with tools like Asana, Jira, and Zapier.

4Host regular one-on-ones 

Make sure you’re hosting regular one-on-one meetings so you know that you’re setting clear expectations, giving consistent feedback, and talking about any roadblocks that may be arising as projects continue to progress. For an underperforming employee, regular one-on-one meetings will help identify the reason they’re underperforming, support them, track their progress, and provide an opportunity to give and receive regular feedback. These meetings will also ensure that employees are being managed in a way that they find is effective for them. 

5Address the situation as soon as possible

It can definitely feel awkward to address underperforming employees, but know that it only gets more difficult as the situation drags on. Address the situation as soon as you begin to notice it. Underperformance isn’t really something that happens overnight, so try to pay attention to your employees and find effective ways to measure performance. Honestly is the best policy, so it’s better to be direct with your employees and let them know straight up that they aren’t performing up to standards. Try framing the underperformance as a general problem that you can tackle together and ensure your employees that you’re there to support and guide them. Reassure your employees that you have no doubt that they’ll get to where they need to be. 

6Assign OKRs 

Assign objectives and key results (OKRs) as a means to measure performance and track it over a specific period of time. With the Objectives tab in Fellow, you can begin assigning and tracking OKRs by linking your objectives to a team meeting, which makes it easy to review progress, resolve challenges, and keep all OKRs on track for each team member and for the team as a whole. Goal setting for software engineers can be hyper-focus individuals on achieving certain objectives and improving their performances. Fellow makes it easy to create new objectives, specify key results, track progress, and update contributors. What’s more is that each team member can create their own private OKRs so they can work on their underperformance without having to let their coworkers in on their progress.

7Provide appropriate training 

You can’t blame employees for underperforming if you haven’t provided the appropriate training to them. Ensure that you’re regularly reviewing the training that you offer both internally and externally. During your one-on-one meetings, discuss which training and development opportunities interest your employees and ensure that they have the time to engage in these learning opportunities. You also want to make sure that your expectations on the amount of training employees should be completing is clear. Make sure that you’re documenting which training they have completed and any upcoming opportunities in which they’d like to take part. Make sure that together, you select specific training that will help pull them out of their underperformance. 

8Learn how to motivate each employee 

Motivation is key when it comes to underperformance. Make sure that you learn how to motivate each employee. Everyone is different and will require different ways to be motivated as an individual, rather than as part of a team. In episode 89 of our Supermanagers podcast, Paul Parisi, Head of Silicon Valley Bank Canada, explains:

“Understanding what a person wants to do, I think, is the most important piece. There are a lot of leaders that will identify a strength in someone and say, ‘hey, you should be doing this because you’d be awesome at it’. But maybe they don’t want to do that. And so, a great leader will identify what those things are that get you inspired and motivated. And it likely is very different than what the team’s goal and vision would be.”

9Prepare to let the engineer go

Sadly, and ultimately, if you really haven’t seen any progress or significant effort made, you need to be prepared to let the engineer go. If the person in question isn’t prepared to address the issue or make the effort, there is only so much you can do as a manager. After offering support, guidance, and several opportunities, if the individual continues to fall short of expectations without any improvement, let them go. Terminating an employee is awkward, uncomfortable, and often dreaded, but you can use this template created by Fellow to make it a little bit easier on everyone. 

6 reasons engineers on your team might be underperforming

1Misalignment 

If engineers can’t seem to align with the company mission or goals, they’re likely to be underperforming. Misalignment also pertains to skills and experience. It’s possible that individuals have misrepresented their abilities in an interview and you have someone who can’t (or won’t) keep up with what is required of them. This misalignment could also be due to a lack of interest, including an individual growing out of their current role. 

2Lack of clarity on expectations

Clear expectations are essential. If they aren’t clear, employees will underperform by default. To improve the performance of underperforming engineers, be sure to clearly define what success looks like, including the specific steps that need to be taken to get there. You also need to measure your engineers’ performance quantitatively so you can track it over time to support your employees. Set expectations from the get-go to avoid underperformance. 

3Lack of motivation 

When employees aren’t motivated at work, they’re likely to underperform because they are missing that feeling of purpose in their role. To drive motivation, take the time to get to know what really motivates each person and create a professional development plan for each individual that is exciting to them. Recognition of employee improvement is essential in continuing to motivate them. 

4Lack of training

If employees lack the training required to be successful in their roles, it’s a given that they may be underperforming. Work with your underperforming engineers to understand where gaps in training are so you can suggest specific training to the skills and competencies that need development for them to succeed in their roles. 

5Poor work culture

Poor work culture can also contribute to underperforming employees. People need to feel a sense of belonging and that they are part of something bigger than just the tasks they’re completing. This means fostering a safe, supportive work environment where individuals feel comfortable to communicate openly and honestly. When an individual doesn’t feel as if they’re a part of the work culture and the values don’t resonate, underperformance may occur. 

6Personal issues 

Most people try to keep their personal issues outside of work unknown to their colleagues, and especially to their boss. When there are things going on outside of the office, it’s tough not to let them impact your ability to do your job. If you notice that a usually high-performing employee is underperforming, make sure to do a personal check-in as part of your regular one-on-one meetings and let them know that you’re there to support them in any way you can as they work through their personal issues. 

Parting advice 

When you have underperforming engineers, it’s usually an effect of the environment and management that they’re under. Be sure to really take the time to understand why people are underperforming and ensure that your employees feel comfortable being open and honest with you. Whatever the reason for underperformance, there is almost always a way to help individuals get to where they need to be. Have faith in your team members and they may also begin to have some faith in themselves.

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