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How to help an underperforming team member?

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Mid-Level Site Reliability Engineer at Ping Identity2 years ago

One of my direct teammates is unfortunately notably under performing since joining the team - without going on too long, their output overall is very low impact, and they often need to be hand held for even simple tasks. For some context, they've been with the team less than 6 months, which does excuse some of their issues, however by this point we'd be expecting them to be far more comfortable and productive in the role, especially considering they have several YOE doing similar work.

Recently, a senior engineer on the team has brought up and discussed this issue with me in a personal discussion, and ultimately feels as though the engineer in question has been given chances/assistance, but you that it's a case of "You can bring a horse to water but can't make them drink".

Besides obviously discussing/raising this issue with our manager (which I fully plan on doing), what else can I do to help this engineer? I'm not interested in seeing them leave the team, but I also don't want to see them stay at this level of impact, and I'm not quite sure how to broach this topic with them (if I even should).

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  • 13
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    Staff SWE at Google, ex-Meta, ex-Amazon
    2 years ago

    Do you have responsibility for this person (lead, mentor, onboarding buddy) or only interest? This is important because how much you need to be involved depends a lot on this.

    Regardless, you need to understand how they feel. Don’t come in guns blazing telling them how they need to improve. Come in gently, ready to have a vulnerable conversation in a safe space. Get a self-assessment from them first. How are you feeling about progress so far? Are there any areas you need more support in? See what they think. If they don’t think they are doing poorly, you asserting it as a “3rd party peer” is inappropriate and could be a set back. It might cause more resistance, incite fear, etc.

    If they know they’re behind, you can again look at what could better support them. They aren’t beholden to you to share if there are extenuating circumstances impacting this. I opened up to my team at Meta that I’d botched my meds and fallen into deep depression that affected my performance, but I don’t expect most people to be comfortable doing that. How it got to this point has some relevance, but what’s next is more important.

    If they share concrete support they need, there’s a chance you can’t provide it yourself. This is another place where what your relationship is matters. If you’re only an interested peer, and they need more clearly scoped work, you may not be able to do anything. If they tell you, open up, are clear, but then you’re unable to help this is rough.

    I think, and I don’t know the circumstances, that you should be volunteering as a resource more than trying to bottom out all of the issues. Telling your manager that you really want to help support person X finish ramp up may be a way to do this without further complications.

    I know this is sort of meandering because it’s hard to cover all bases since I don’t know the details. I’ve been the concerned peer and the responsible individual. I’ve been the person flailing/failing. This is delicate and I’d just caution you setting a tone or making commitments to this person that isn’t your place.

  • 18
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    Robinhood, Meta, Course Hero, PayPal
    2 years ago

    As a prolific mentor (I grew 15+ engineers back at Meta), I've been on this side, and it's tricky with low-performers. Zooming out, there is another question you should ask yourself: Should I be helping this person?

    Here are some ways to figure that out:

    • Are they easy to work with? - Let's say they are dismissive of feedback and are kind of a jerk to people in general. A problem that deep I would leave to the manager - That's really hard for you to correct, and this person was sort of destined for failure anyways. However, if they're genuinely kind and enjoyable to work with, this could be a case where you invest some time trying to help.
    • What level are they? - Impact doesn't only apply to code and projects, it applies to mentorship as well. It's much higher impact saving a senior/staff engineer than it is to save a junior engineer. If they're on the upper end of the level spectrum, this is another + for helping them.
    • What does your manager think? - This is 100% the kind of stuff you should clear with your manager first before really diving in. Also, if they have been on the team for 3+ months (which your question seems to hint at), this probably requires deeper intervention like a PIP.

    The reason I bring this up is because of this harsh reality: Investing too much in low performers can take you down with them. It hurts me to say this as I'm the type of person who tries to save everyone (I have spent many, many hours trying to recover low-performers), but at the end of the day, you need to be pragmatic and protect yourself first.

    If you do decide to help this person, I have the following resources:

    Best of luck!

Ping Identity Corporation is an American software company established in 2002 by Andre Durand and Bryan Field-Elliot. The company's software provides federated identity management and self-hosted identity access management to web identities via attribute based access controls.
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