Curing the Disease of Underperformance in Engineering Teams

· 4 min read
Curing the Disease of Underperformance in Engineering Teams

According to recent surveys, 26% of employees are considered underperformers, costing companies up to $3.4M in lost productivity per 1,000 workers. Engineering teams are not immune to this issue. In fact, the increasing complexity of software development means underperformance problems can cripple an organization’s tech velocity if left unaddressed.

When a minority of developers fail to deliver quality work on time, it has cascading consequences across the entire team. Projects must catch up, managers waste time micromanaging or firefighting, and resentment builds among other team members who must compensate. Morale and productivity plummet.

A Cautionary Tale

When my friend Dave joined the software engineering team at his new company, he was excited to make an impact. But, he quickly saw that a few underperforming developers acted as bottlenecks, slowing the entire team’s progress.

Simple bugs languished for days in the queue of his sloppy coworker, James. He watched Gary present flawed estimates in planning meetings, revealing shaky technical skills. He found himself staying late to fix defects that Christine’s code introduced.

Morale was plunging as the project fell behind schedule. The CTO, Mike, seemed burnt out in firefighting crises instead of supporting his reports. Dave could see his teammates’ talents being wasted, even as he worked overtime compensating.

Fortunately, Mike reassessed capabilities and reassigned underperformers like James to less complex tasks. Top developers like Dave were promoted to lead the development of critical features end-to-end.

With renewed purpose, Dave helped mentor peers as their skills grew. He found deep fulfillment in unblocking his team’s potential. Mike could finally focus on cultivating his staff and pursuing growth.

Dave felt grateful to work alongside a team aligned in vision and strengths. He took pride in being part of an engineering culture where facing hard truths paved the way for sustainable success.

The Compounding Damage

As engineering teams grow from small startups to larger organizations, managers often encounter an issue where a minority of team members struggle to keep up with the increasing complexity of their roles. Some developers lack the skills or motivation to take ownership of more complex tasks, meet deadlines, and communicate effectively.

This results in excessive management time spent micromanaging these underperformers, which takes away from more strategic initiatives and contributes to manager burnout. Projects are delayed or delivered with major defects due to poor quality work, leading to financial losses, damaged client relationships, and opportunity costs from reallocating resources to redo the work.

Underperformers also fail to uphold discipline around documentation and knowledge sharing. This silos information and makes transferring responsibilities difficult or having others effectively review their work.

Over time, resentment builds among other team members who consistently have to do more work or fix mistakes caused by the underperformers. This leads to friction, distrust, and plummeting morale within the team.

The lack of standards upheld by underperformers also threatens operational greatness as the engineering organization scales. Mediocrity starts to become tolerated, signaling to talented team members that they may need to leave to advance their careers. If left unaddressed, these problems tend to worsen as inefficiencies compound.

We, managers, must deal with underperformance issues early on before they fester and cause more significant downstream impacts. But, managers often struggle to devote enough attention to adequately address this minority of underperformers when also trying to focus on the broader organization.

Strategies for Improvement

After careful evaluation, managers should focus on providing struggling developers with support and opportunities to improve before considering any transitions. Implement a formal mentoring program that pairs underperformers with senior developers who can provide daily coaching and feedback. Provide targeted training through internal workshops to help fill competency gaps.

Consider reassigning struggling developers to less complex front-end tasks or maintenance roles that better match their skills. Make these transitions gradually over 6 months with clearly defined goals and regular check-ins. Introduce low-code/no-code platforms as appropriate to simplify coding responsibilities.

If performance remains insufficient after reasonable training and reassignment efforts, then transitions to non-developer roles would be inevitable. However, the focus should remain on patiently developing talent rather than quick layoffs and replacement hiring whenever possible.

Establish new onboarding programs, training opportunities, and improved documentation practices for remaining team members to proactively prevent skill deficiencies. Instill a culture of continual learning and growth, not just penalizing underperformance.

With the proper support, most struggling developers can become productive team members over time. The goal should be the compassionate development of talent, with layoffs only as a last resort after extensive efforts to improve performance.

A Growth Mindset

An engineering team is like a garden — the entire ecosystem thrives when all the plants are nourished. But when a few plants are neglected, they wither and infect the soil around them. The gardener must tend to these struggling sprouts, not uproot them out of frustration.

Carefully assess why certain plants are underperforming — do they need more sunlight, water, or suitable soil? Slowly transplant them to environments where they can grow strong. Remove damaging weeds that choke their development. Over time, with customized care, most will blossom to their full potential.

Of course, a small minority may be beyond revival despite the gardener’s best efforts. But even after removing these dead plants, the focus remains on enriching the garden’s overall health. Too much disruption damages the entire plot’s fertility.

Approach underperformers on your engineering team with a gardener’s patience and compassion. Address the roots of their struggles with empathy. Nurture their skills through mentorship and training. Help them blossom in roles matched to their strengths.

This growth mindset cultivates joy, purpose, and collective achievement. When the whole garden is cared for, breathtaking results bloom.

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