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How to Deal with a Poorly Performing Scrum Team Member

How to Deal with a Poorly Performing Scrum Team Member

One question I receive fairly often from harried ScrumMasters is: how do I help a poorly performing Scrum team member improve?  What can I do to make that person perform better?

To answer this question, you must decide if you agree with a key foundational belief in Scrum: the power of intrinsic motivation. People who have internalized Scrum values believe in intrinsic motivation. Specifically, they believe if you:

  • place someone in a situation that they are well-suited for, and
  • remove any blocking issues,

that person will be intrinsically motivated to succeed. In other words, they will perform well because they want to and are able to perform well.

Think of a Scrum team member you considered to be performing poorly. Why do you think that person did not perform well? Try to “put yourself in their head.” Just be them for a moment. What is it about the situation that didn’t work for them? Did something make them feel stressed? Uncomfortable? Unappreciated? Overexposed? When you can figure out what they were feeling that was unpleasant enough to kill their motivation, you can then make some guesses about how to fix the issue.

Change the situation - don’t try to change the person.

As ScrumMasters, we don’t change people. We don’t make people do anything and, furthermore, it isn’t our job to make anyone do anything. Our job is to ask questions and make observations that lead people to their teachable moment. By doing that, as well as meeting the two bullet points above, we are giving that person the best chance possible to motivate themselves.

The team member in question might simply not have “fit” on that team. The work may not have interested him/her. There may be things going on in that person’s personal life which negatively affected his/her work. Here’s a novel thought: maybe that person just doesn’t like Scrum and doesn’t like to work in a way that produces so much transparency. Your job as ScrumMaster is to work with the team member to figure it out.

But what happens if you do all that, and the team member still doesn’t perform?

In that case, they are probably in the wrong situation altogether and would be happiest leaving the company or, at the very least, the group. The fact is that there is usually a fair bit of attrition when an organization starts to do Scrum. Some people wring their hands like it’s a bad thing – but why would you want someone to stay in a work environment that they are ill-suited for? One they find unpleasant and unfulfilling? Let them go on to a place where they are happier; where they can thrive.

My first job out of university was at a quasi-governmental electric utility. Two days into the job, I knew I was woefully under-employed. I literally could have done the entire job—everything I was assigned—in less than 4 hours a week, yet I was forced to stretch it out over 40 hours and try to “look busy” the whole time. Needless to say, I eventually left that organization. There was literally nothing they could have done—no amount of money or promotions offered—that would have made me happy there.

I was simply in a situation that I was ill-suited for.

Ask yourself: what situation would my poorly performing team member have needed to thrive? If you were not able to offer it, let that person go so they can find it on their own.


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