Picture this: the project is nearing completion, your stakeholders love your outputs, and the team is laser-focused on the deadlines.
Suddenly, your star player starts to underperform. They stop contributing at meetings, are frequently late, and the quality of their work declines, forcing other team members to pick up the slack. The project is finished on time, but you are frustrated and unsure of what to do next.
Should you talk to the underperforming team member or ignore the situation, hoping it was a temporary glitch?
Effective project managers need to maintain team dynamics by focusing on what is best for individual team members and the group. Addressing poor performance avoids conflict and keeps everyone working together.
Read on to learn more about performance management, and four ways to boost team performance using goals, check-ins, rewards, and feedback.
Managing Team Performance
Performance management is a ‘process by which managers and employees work together to plan, monitor and review an employee’s work objectives and overall contribution to the organization’.
The purpose of performance management is the continuous assessment of progress against agreed goals and metrics, with feedback and support provided as needed. In some instances, performance management is linked to bonus schemes and salary increments.
Poor performance demotivates the team, unbalances the pace of work, and prevents collaboration. If unaddressed, poor performance also undermines your role as project leader.
Performance issues can have a number of sources including:
- Lack of appropriate training or support.
- Unrealistic deadlines.
- Decreased motivation.
- Outdated tools or processes.
- A mismatch between the individual’s current skills and the role.
- An absence of regular feedback from the project manager, which leads to uncertainty about upcoming tasks and individual responsibilities.
- Changes in the team.
- Personal circumstances.
If performance suddenly dips, you will need to invest some time identifying the cause of the problem before deciding next steps.
Trends in Performance Management
In recent years, companies such as Deloitte, Accenture, PwC, Adobe, and Dell have moved away from the traditional annual performance review to more frequent, informal check-ins between managers and employees. Feedback is constant and linked to individual goals.
This transition reflects the increased need for agility, collaboration, and innovation in business. Organizations simply can’t wait to give feedback once a year.
These companies have also recognized employees want to grow and contribute more on an ongoing basis. Delivering infrequent or annual feedback prevents employees from making immediate improvements to their performance which support business growth.
Documenting their new approach for the Harvard Business Review, Deloitte highlight that they wanted to recognize and see performance so they could fuel it. In other words, they focused on performance improvement, not just management. Core to this approach was an emphasis on purpose, expectations, and individual strengths.
Deloitte and similar companies deployed three key tools when improving their performance management processes: aligned goals, frequent check-ins, and rewards. The next section explores how you can combine these practices with constructive feedback to improve performance.
4 Ways to Boost Project Team Performance
1. Aligned Goals
A goal is defined as ‘the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result’. Goals provide focus and direction as we work towards the desired outcome, such as running a marathon or joining a new project to upskill.
Performance can decline if a team member doesn’t have clear goals or if they feel their goals don’t fit with the purpose of the project. Every team members should understand the objectives of the project from both an organizational and personal perspective for two reasons.
Firstly, helping your team connect the project to their professional and personal goals is a powerful motivator, especially when plans go awry! Focusing on goals helps the team to deliver successful, creative outcomes.
Secondly, if your team appreciate why a particular task or process is important, they are more likely to engage with their work.
When setting goals with your team, define individual roles and responsibilities and metrics of success to ensure full transparency.
2. Frequent Check-ins
“People want to know they matter and they want to be treated as people. That’s the new talent contract.” – Pamela Stroko, HR Thought Leader
Research suggests that managers should check-in with team members regularly, for example, using a scheduled weekly meeting. This check-in is a great way to discuss upcoming tasks and priorities; review recent work, and provide any required feedback or guidance. These meetings help team members understand what is expected of them and how they can deliver their best work in the coming days.
Here are a few questions to consider including during your next check-in:
- What’s going well in your role?
- What challenges are you facing? How can I help you?
- How are you feeling?
- On a scale of 1-10, how happy are you & why?
- What’s the best thing that happened to you this week, both inside and outside of work?
- What else is happening with the team?
3. Celebrate Success
It’s always nice to receive some acknowledgment for our work. Studies indicate that rewards and recognition improve motivation, engagement, and retention whilst also helping to build a positive working environment.
Rewards and recognition can take many formats; it’s also worth remembering that different employees require different forms of appreciation. Whilst financial rewards seem like an obvious route, Bob Nelson recommends 1,501 alternatives for better, long-lasting results! These include:
- Get everyone involved in planning the project and identifying objectives.
- Ask team members to recognize one another’s achievements.
- Take the team on enjoyable outings outside of work.
- When the assignment concludes, thank each team member individually.
- Ask excellent workers what they want as a reward and make it happen.
- Observe employees’ milestone tenures with gifts or time off.
- Post a “praising board” to display appreciative letters from clients.
4. Tackle Poor Performance with Constructive Feedback
Aligning goals, open communication, and rewards will help to maintain high-performance levels. However, you will likely need to tackle poor performance at some point on a project. It’s natural to try to avoid giving negative feedback and hope the situation improves over time.
If you are unsure about approaching a team member, consider this survey result: 57% of 889 respondents preferred to receive constructive feedback which helped them to improve their performance. Team members want, and need, feedback to grow in their roles.
If a performance issue arises on your tea, it’s important to act quickly to resolve the problem. The following tips will help you do so:
- Set up a meeting with the individual as quickly as possible. If possible, choose a neutral, private location.
- Gather evidence, for example, if a team member is coming in late, check their recent clock-in/clock-out records.
- During the meeting, be specific. Explain what happened, how you feel about it, and why. This article provides eight sample scenarios to help you prepare!
- Get input from the team member. Why did this situation occur? Were they aware of the consequences of their actions? How do they feel about it?
- Ask the team members for solutions. It’s important that the individual takes responsibility for their actions, and also feels invested in what happens next. Some questions to use are: What ideas do you have? What is your key takeaway from this conversation? What steps will you take, by when, and how will I know?
- Be clear – don’t mix positive and negative feedback together. Many people will focus on positive feedback and ignore the negative part!
- Keep an open mind. We rarely know what is really happening in someone’s life.
- Pay attention to your body language to avoid conveying any discomfort or aggression. Maintain eye contact; don’t cross your arms, and nod to show you are listening.
- Conclude the meeting with an action plan with timelines and activities.
After the meeting, make sure you follow-up with the individual regularly. Track their performance and deliver your own promises, for example, freeing up extra resources or providing additional coaching.
Performance management is a powerful vehicle to nurture and develop a strong project team. Take a proactive approach to performance with defined goals, regular check-ins, and rewards. If an issue does occur, tackle the problem immediately. People want to be happy and productive at work; you can help them to achieve this.