Koan #2: Feedback To Underperforming Peer

We usually send the situation in one newsletter and results in a following newsletter. Here the situations and results are copied verbatim into one post. Hence, when it says 'you' - it means the subscribers who voted in newsletter, not readers of this archive.
This situation was published in the 08 Feb 2021 newsletter.


You are working on a project with a peer, and you notice that they are not completing their tasks on time or to their usual standard. This reflects badly on you too. You also know that they are currently working with two young children at home. How would you respond to this?

Option A - Organise a time to speak to them alone. Let them know you have noticed a change in their work and explain that it is affecting you too. See how they respond to this. You do not offer to take on any of their work and suggest that they speak to their line manager about the situation.

Option B - Organise a time to speak to them alone. Let them know you have noticed a change in their work and explain that it is affecting you too. See how they respond to this. You offer to take on a proportion of their work and suggest how they could support you in return in the future.

Option C - Speak to their manager (who may or may not also be your manager) about what you have noticed, to see if this is the case on other projects they are working on before you raise it with them.

Option D - Let them know you have noticed a change in their work and offer suggestions of how they might be able to manage it better, for example attending a course. Suggest a follow up call or meeting in a few days time.


The key to this situation is to find out why they are not performing to their best, or at least to the standard expected. It is easy to assume that this is because they are working with young children at home, but this may not be the case. Using a phrase such as “I want to tell you the things I’ve been seeing, and then I want you to tell me all about it from your perspective” can be powerful so that everyone is clear on what is happening and why.

For this reason we would not recommend Option C, which 3% of us chose, of going to their manager first. Our assumptions about why they are unable to meet the deadline may be wrong, and could cause abrasion with someone who is already struggling, so we would suggest to always go and empathetically talk with the person first to hear their perspective.

Options A, B and D, which together constituted 91% of replies, all suggested this approach and we would also suggest a phone call if you are working remotely as difficult conversations over video can be awkward and are more likely to have technological issues. It is important to show that you understand the challenges your peers are facing and that they see how this is affecting you too. Giving clear feedback to peers can be challenging but will build a more cohesive team in the long run. You can also explain to them how or what you rely on them for to show that you value them. This is by no means only the role of a team manager.

For Option A, which 51% of us chose, your gut instinct may be to do more to help, you may need to prioritise your own workload and wellbeing and may not have capacity to take on anything additional. Explain this to the peer so that they do not think you are unwilling to help them.

Option B was similar but in this case you offered to take on some of your peer’s work. This option, which 29% of us chose, is supportive although it could also mean that you risk doing your own part to a less high quality. Working relationships are about connection, and you want to build the relationship. You want to ensure that the plan for what you are taking on in explicit so it is clear what you are responsible for. You may want to make a concrete plan for how they can repay this in the future, or if not, that you are happy to give this time freely and will not resent this in the future. It may also not be within your role to decide how to delegate tasks, and you many need to speak to the leader of the project to re-delegate the tasks to reflect the current circumstances.

We had some great and also lengthy comments this week, we think perhaps because the options were more similar to each other. Suggestions we would like to highlight:

  • Offer to support them in talking to their manager if they wanted to do that.
  • Offer to support them, which may not be by taking on their work, as in Option D.
  • Making it ‘tit for tat’ could make people feel uncomfortable so I would want to offer support without them needing to offer to do something in return
  • I would assume that they know it was affecting me and wouldn’t necessarily add that as they may already feel guilty about underperforming.
  • If the conversation becomes defensive, or I think it wouldn’t be productive due to their personality or other reasons, I might go straight to their manager.