There are two main reasons for underperformance: a skill gap or a will gap. As a manager, you’ll benefit from determining upfront which of these situations you’re dealing with, and you’ll get better results much more quickly. On paper it seems like it would be easy to distinguish—you either want to succeed (will) or not; you can do the task (skill) or not.
However, imagine managing an experienced person. They may want to do a great job but they may still not want to tackle a new project. It could be that they don’t have the skills (and don’t want to tell you) or that they’re afraid they will be found lacking. You need to understand their motivation in order to support them appropriately.
Listen carefully and observe them when they’re talking about the project. Are they physically uncomfortable? Constantly making excuses for a lack of progress? When you have a hypothesis, have a private conversation to test your theory. It could sound like this: “Jeff, we’ve not met the milestones on Project X and I’m not sure how to best support you. From what you’ve said [parrot back what you’ve heard], it sounds like you are concerned that your lack of familiarity with Y is going to impact the outcome. I know how much you care about doing excellent work so I would imagine that really disturbs you. Is that true?” If he agrees, then present several options. “Do you think it would be helpful if Joe, who is expert in Y, helps out? Or, “Do you think [some type of training] would be useful?” The goal is to let him have control—it is still his problem to solve, you’re just trying to surface the issue.
When something isn’t getting done, don’t assume you know why. Take the time to find out what is really blocking your teammate and do what you can to remove the obstacles from their path.
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