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BLUF: How do you motivate/coach/feedback someone who is just slow at their job?

I work in a technical environment, overseeing a group of engineers/programmers. One of my senior guys just seems to take ages to do whatever work he has to do. If I give a particular job to one of my junior high achievers, it may take 1 day to do. If I give it to this senior guy, it can take 3-4 days to do. The fact that some of the juniors are visibly outperforming this guy is causing resentment amongst them, since they are doing more for less pay than this guy.

Whenever I speak to him about time taken for jobs, he gives plenty of very good reasons/problems that he hit that was why it took so long. Yet my more junior, lower paid guys either don't hit these issues, or they hit them, work em out quickly, and continue on.

I don't think hes goofing off or anything (there was an issue with that a few months ago, but feedback and systemic feedback seems to have nipped that in the bud). My gut feeling is he's just not a good programmer - however the only metrics I have are time taken on jobs, and our jobs vary enough that you can't compare job x to job y.

Any ideas on how I should approach this? I've tried the methods in instilling a sense of urgency podcast, and he just says "Sorry, I missed the deadline due to x, y and z. Then a, b and c occurred." I don't really know what to put into a feedback model - "Bob, when you took 1 week to write this report, heres what happens, I feel let down because my gut feel was that it would take 2 days, and the customer felt let down because they didnt get their report before the weekend. What would you do differently? Ur, nothing - I wrote it as quick as I could." Or do I try coaching? I just don't know how to coach someone to be a 'better' programmer.

I've thought about being straight up. "Bob, it took you a week to do something I thought would take one day. This happens all the time. Hell, Jack who sits next to you is bitching to me about how slow you are. What the hell is wrong with you?" But I reckon that will do more harm than good.

Any suggestions? The status quo has to change, but buggered if I can think of the best way to approach it.

ctomasi's picture

Bartman,

Has the senior guy recognized the junior people doing more work in less time? Although not a significant "slow performer", I was in that position a few years ago and the career threat of a young high-performer certainly motivated me.

jhack's picture

bartman,

There are really two separate problems here. First, he doesn't make the deadlines he agrees to. This is the more serious in the short run, as it erodes your ability to plan effectively, and the team can't count on him. Second, his performance is below standard.

Both can be measured. Programmers are generally an optimistic lot (as far as their tasks are concerned!). Don't let him off the hook when he misses a deadline. "What can you do differently?" is a great question. (Build in some time for the unexpected? Ask for help? the answer will vary).

Once the estimates are realistic (ie, he hits his deadlines) then the issue becomes one of pure performance. There are measures (production lines of code, function points, etc). You need to establish minimum levels of performance. If he can't hit them, you coach. If he still struggles, you might see if another role is better for his skill set (QA? Doc?). Finally, it might simply be a matter of late stage coaching.

Quick story: A programmer on my team, it turned out, was simply embarassed to ask for help, and spent a lot of time trying to solve problems alone when collaboration solved them quickly. He agreed to a specific way of asking for help, and his performance immediately improved.

John

akinsgre's picture

[quote="bartman"]
Any ideas on how I should approach this? I've tried the methods in instilling a sense of urgency podcast, and he just says "Sorry, I missed the deadline due to x, y and z. Then a, b and c occurred." I don't really know what to put into a feedback model - "Bob, when you took 1 week to write this report, heres what happens, I feel let down because my gut feel was that it would take 2 days, and the customer felt let down because they didnt get their report before the weekend. What would you do differently? Ur, nothing - I wrote it as quick as I could." Or do I try coaching? I just don't know how to coach someone to be a 'better' programmer.
[/quote]

Tough Situation; I've experienced similar behaviors and I know that it's hard to be reasonable - after all, these things do happen - and get the behavior to change.

It may be that in this situation, "slow" isn't a behavior.

The behavior that may need correcting is that he needs to plan his work better; understanding where problems might occur, what challenges he will run into. These abilities are what should separate a senior programmer from a junior programmer.

Perhaps along with feedback on meeting deadlines, he needs feedback on planning his work, and reporting on his progress when he's experiencing problems?

jael's picture

I agree he needs to meet his deadlines, but I do have a couple of questions.

How did he get to be the senior guy in the first place? Is it just via the calendar, or is he the person with the deep well of knowledge that everyone else goes to for information/answers/help? Constant interuptions would slow him down but move them along quicker.

drinkcoffee's picture

I have been in exactly this situation and this is what I would recommend:

First, get him to commit to a deadline and OWN that commitment. I would use the "Develop a Sense of Urgency in Your Team" podcast as a guideline. In other words, ask the question "when can you get this to me?"

Missed deadlines are an opportunity for feedback and coaching. NO EXCUSES.

To paraphrase something Mark wrote to me once:

Your directs are responsible for their work. Don’t consider excuses or slowness as a reason to be late. If they think that something will come up, or they won't be able to finish it on time, then they need to come up with a plan for reducing the risk. They need to communicate to you BEFORE THE DEADLINE that they don't think they're going to make it. Missed deadlines are behavior -- regardless of the reason for the miss.

Bottom line, they're not meeting the expectations of the position and that merits lots of feedback like this:

"When you miss a deadline that you committed to, here's what happens: you make the team look bad, and I begin to feel like you are not up to the challenge that this senior role demands. In addition, the project is late and my overall performance suffers. What can you do differently?"

I think the key is to have THEM OWN their deadline commitment, and don't accept excuses.

Hope this helps,
Bill

CA_1's picture

Drinkcoffee hit the nail on the head.

Slow is not the problem, it is a symptom and I would recommend a couple things: Talk to him about this issue and try to determine the reasons why he is slow. It's not the excuses that make him slow. His excuses are his defensiveness to your feedback. Get as much as you can to the root of the problem. The second recommendation is to break his projects down into finer resolution tasks. This will be helpful for you to determine where in the process he is having problems. The downside to this is the perception of micromanagement might be a de-motivating factor. You will have to be very specific with him why you are doing this.

AManagerTool's picture

Missed Deadline + Great Excuse = Missed Deadline

steven_martin's picture

So what do you do if you are the senior guy, the goto guy that everyone comes too. The interuptions are becoming painful and preventing me from getting things done in a reasonable timeframe. It took a while for my boss to realize that this was the problem, luckily she understands. But how to you break the cycle. I understand that it has to be me that makes the change but short of not helping what can I do.

ctomasi's picture

Steven,

That sounds VERY familiar. I was in that position recently (minus the slow perfromance). I have a senior guy who is the expert in a lot of areas and gets a lot of escalation tickets. Very hard to predict his workload. He could end up losing 2-3 days of a project on a firefighting mission.

It took us the better part of the past year of training and delegating his tasks to the newer guys. The junior guys love it because they get to learn new stuff and feel important to handle "bigger things". The senior guy likes it because he is now able to focus more on the senior job he enjoys and is good at.

Yes, there are periodic interruptions and we try to allocate his time accordingly. When crunch time comes, he knows how to step up. We offer comp time appropriately for those weekend server rebuilds.

Bottom line, look for options to get rid of the distractions.

bensimo's picture

[quote="bartman"]BLUF:

How do you motivate/coach/feedback someone who is just slow at their job?

I work in a technical environment, overseeing a group of engineers/programmers. One of my senior guys just seems to take ages to do whatever work he has to do. If I give a particular job to one of my junior high achievers, it may take 1 day to do. If I give it to this senior guy, it can take 3-4 days to do. The fact that some of the juniors are visibly outperforming this guy is causing resentment amongst them, since they are doing more for less pay than this guy.

snip

I've thought about being straight up. "Bob, it took you a week to do something I thought would take one day. This happens all the time. Hell, Jack who sits next to you is bitching to me about how slow you are. What the hell is wrong with you?" But I reckon that will do more harm than good.

Any suggestions? The status quo has to change, but buggered if I can think of the best way to approach it.[/quote]

You have to be straight up, but what the hell are you doing won't help. Straight up means first asking him why his work output is so low compared to others. After discussing that issue and at the same session, tell him that given his work output you cannot continue to pay him as he is presently being paid. If he is only worth 1/2 what juniors are being paid, he should be paid less than them. Explain to him that his juniors are upset with this situation and his poor performance is causing bad morale in the group. Ask him to think about this and get back to you with whatever he intends to do about it.

After this session and before he gets back to you, get the entire group together for a regular meeting and at that meeting bring up the subject by saying something like "I know that many of you are unhappy that you are being paid less than X because he takes far longer than you to do his work. As the supervisor, I am responsible for this and I apologize to you for not having fixed this problem and for causing you to be upset. I want you to know that X and I are working to resolve this. Like any problem it won't be resolved overnight, but I commit to you that it will be resolved."
Don't open this to questions although I doubt that you will get any.

This admission of error by you is necessary to assuage the group about an issue which is public knowledge. You can't hide it so make damn sure that you admit to it to your group and make them know that you know and are acting upon it.

This will also help to influence X to take action to fix his problem although it is possible that there is no way for him to fix his problem. At your next meeting with him, mostly listen to what he has decided to do. If he is upset that you publicly discussed his problem, tell him that he was the one who made it public, not you and stop there. Ask questions so that you thoroughly understand in detail what he intends. It might be nothing, it might be working longer each day to increase his output (this is not a possibility if he is paid hourly) or taking a course in a programming language or whatever. Be prepared to ask him about whether he has considered every possible method to solve his problem. Keeping a log of his actions each day hour by hour? Be prepared to ask him "Have you considered -----?" Whatever.

Set a time limit for yourself to fix this problem such as 2 months and at the end take action to terminate or reduce his pay if he has not completely corrected. Make him aware of any impending action 2 weeks before taking it.

The key is to put enough pressure on him to cause him to try his damnedest to fix it. So far, it sounds like you and your junior people are the only ones wanting to fix it, not X. If X does not care, then it will never be fixed. Your job as supervisor is to provide consequences for failing to meet reasonable standards in order to influence X to want to fix it and to understand that you are serious. So far you have not provided any consequence so X is doing nothing and your group is suffering. You must turn that around quickly and decisively.

Your most important function as supervisor is to stand up for high standards of performance - high standards of all values such as quality, industry, safety, fairness, forthrightness, compassion, humility, knowledge, perseverance, respect, courtesy, excellence, etcetera, etcetera.

In this particular event, you so far get low marks in respect for juniors, the same for forthrightness to juniors, the same for quality and probably a few more. You don't get high marks anywhere as yet. You really need to turn that around because your people will start to follow these bad leads if you don't. If you can shirk your responsibilities, why can't they. One of your many responsibilities is to provide consequence or discipline and so far there is not indication of that.

Please don't hesitate to ask me questions. I am willing to coach you through this by phone if you so desire.

Best regards, Ben

kklogic's picture

I disagree with about every word typed in the post above this one. It's funny, there are times I think M&M's methods are common sense - and well, isn't this how anyone manages? Clearly not. I think I'm more of a fan now than I have ever been.

US41's picture

"Slow" is a conclusion. "Missed a deadline" is a behavior. Set deadlines. Deadlines have the following components: Month / Date Hour:Minutes AM/PM.

When you delegate anything to your directs, remember the step where you set expectations for delivery. Write the assignment on a post-it note and put it on the one on one form for the next review for follow up.

If he makes the date AND time, then give positive feedback. If he misses the date, then give negative feedback.

Do this every time. Eventually, a stack of data will pile up. When it does, take a look at it and process the facts. Is he really late all the time? Or, is he late sometimes and on time or early most of the time.

Review these results with him. Quarterly, you should tell him that his delivery past deadlines will adversely affect his annual review. If you haven't, set an objective for him this year that by December 1, he will deliver 95% of his assignments on-time or early.

That's what you do.

Keep in mind that the goal of a manager is effectiveness, and that what is effective is building relationships and using that power + feedback + coaching toward higher performance to increase your directs' abilities.

DO NOT:

* Involve your other directs (triangulation is not healthy)
* Publicly call him out (humiliation is not a manager tool)
* Apologize to him (you are not responsible for his behavior)
* Hold any sort of meeting other than your usual O3 (spending time on bottom performers beyond the O3 is not effective)

Trust will be destroyed if you do those things, and once it is, you will have a darn difficult time ever trying to rebuild it.

BartMasters's picture

Wow! Thanks for all the responses everyone - I'll take some time to digest them properly, then come back with some answers etc. Just thanks for the great responses.

thaGUma's picture

Please make sure he is not suffering from personal issues. A lot of the advice here is hard-nosed and I would act with some caution.
Senior member of staff who is 'no longer cutting it' is not uncommon. The reasons can be varied and the fact that you are not getting the answers does lie at your desk.
Gather facts. Continue to give feedback, coaching and inform HR.

CA_1 has a valid point; increase management time for him. Micromangment is extremely de-motivating but you need to establish if the problem is work-based.

Good luck,
Chris

Peter.westley's picture

The original post here is a few days old but...my $0.02

I wonder has this slowness always been the case or is it a new thing?

If it's always been the case, consider very carefully that his behavioural style can come in to play here. (See the casts on DISC styles if you're not sure)

If he's high C (my assumption), it might be that he's trying to get everything 110% right before moving on. He'll need coaching on delivering with some uncertainty.

If he's high S, he might be being distracted (as might a high I) or perhaps a personal issue has had an impact (including that the other, younger directs are out-performing him).

This doesn't sound like high D behaviour. :-)

Knowing his style will help you provide feedback in a way that makes most sense for him.

If it's a new trend (i.e. he wasn't always slow) then digging for what's changed is possibly your best bet. e.g. younger peers as above, company structure, new boss (you?).

The behavioural style can help lead you to what the cause might be and therefore serve as a pointer to the area for your focus.

Good luck.