It Only Takes One (Handling a Bad Team Member)

It only takes one. The one person who is not mindful of the quality of their work. The one person who is not respectful. The one person who is not pulling their weight. The one person filled with negativity or cynicism. The one person zapping energy and excitement from everyone on the team.

If we have hired well, we hope this situation doesn’t happen but sooner or later you will find someone like this on one of your teams and something will need to be done.

This point was emphasized during an excellent keynote address delivered by Bob Sutton during Agile 2012 titled “Scaling-Up Excellence.” To quote Mr. Sutton, “One deadbeat or jerk cuts team performance 30% to 40%.” He continued with “Don’t put up with destructive beliefs and behaviors. Bad is stronger than good.”

One deadbeat or jerk cuts team performance 30% to 40%.

Sounds pretty harsh but we get the message. While at the conference, head nods with agreement from Bob’s statement. But eventually Monday comes around and we are back at the office…

I would guess most of us work at a company with human resource and legal departments. Procedures are already in place to handle under-performing team members so things get a little more complicated.

So how should we go about it?

This is always a tough subject and one which requires much more than just a blog post to discuss. It’s never easy to talk about possibly letting someone go or moving them off a team, but as leaders, we all know this is our responsibility.

By no means a definitive list, here are a few insights on preparing and handling these situations.

Define and communicate your values and principles. Work with your leadership team to establish your non-compromising values for your organization. This can’t just be an exercise – it must be “at the core” beliefs. If you are not sure where to start, Erin Beierwaltes has a cool approach to try. Communicate your values constantly, especially with the managers your team members are reporting to. Values will drive your decisions.

Be prepared. Bring your human resource department up to speed with the cultural and collaborative expectations for working in an Agile environment. Share your values with them and how important they will be to the success of your Agile transformation. We did not do this but I wish we did.

Have a plan. This could be as simple as how you will start coaching an individual when the first issue is identified. Another approach Mr. Sutton recommended was to “link people with the right mindset and skills with those who are mediocre or incompetent.” Whatever it is, have an approach created before it is needed. Also, most human resource departments require a documented history so if the necessary improvements are not happening, begin documenting your approach and the results.

Give them a chance. With values established, human resources, and a plan in place, give them every chance to change. Timebox the amount of time you will give them but give them every opportunity to improve.

Take action. Once your timebox expires and if problems persist, be definitive. Your people are watching how the situation is being handled.

Obviously, given a choice we would never want to go through this with anyone but the alternative is not an acceptable option. The health and productivity of your teams are depending on you.


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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14 thoughts on “It Only Takes One (Handling a Bad Team Member)

  1. Hi! Please tell me, this post is written to whom? I mean when you say “take action” or “be definitive” – who do you mean? Product owner? Scrum master? Team member? A manager? Thanks in advance, this is important for me to understand :)

    • Great question Tomek. This post was written from the perspective of the one who has hiring, firing, and performance management responsibilities for the “bad team member.” This is most often the manager.

      Thanks for reading and have a great new year! Len