Don’t waste time on low performers !

In this podcast, I am going to go over why it makes no sense to spend your days dealing with low performers. Just don’t do it! This is an edited transcript.

Welcome to the corporate middle I am your host Donald Meador my goal on this show is to give you actual advice you can put into action as a middle manager. Today let’s talk about dealing with time-sucking low performers on your team. I was recently asked this question to me “I have one member of my team who is taking up all my time. They are not performing at the level I need but                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          I can’t even focus on the things that are important, what should I do?” That is a great question and something we all struggle with from time to time. The worst thing about being a middle manager… Is other people. Namely, people on your team that are awful and just can’t get the job done. You will find you are going to spend a huge amount of your time on these individuals. A completely ineffective and inordinate amount of time.

A Robert Half survey conducted a few years ago revealed that some managers spend 17% of their time – managing poor performers.  the equivalent of nearly one day a week –

I have a sports background so let’s try and look at it from a sports perspective. New England Patriots. Arguably one of the greatest NFL franchises in history, that team is a given to competing for championships! Tom Brady their starting Quarterback arguably one of the greatest to ever play the game. Here is a question for you. Who is Tom Brady’s backup….. Brian Hoyer some of you may know that if you are a true New England fan… Okay, how about who is the 3rd string QB… the guy who is third on the depth chart? Danny Etling is his name. Now the head coach of the Patriots is Bill Belichick… How much time do you think he spends worrying about Danny Etling. When they are practicing for getting ready for their game for that weekend how much practice does the 3rd string QB get working with the first team. The answer, none. Because you have limited time to practice and get ready for the week. Brian Hoyer the 2nd team guy only gets between 0 maybe 20% time in practice. Coaches focus on the players that will make them win the game. We as leaders have to do the same. If Belichick spent his practice time trying to get Danny Etling up to speed everyone would think he was nuts. We have limited time and limited resources, focusing our attention in one area only makes us move focus from somewhere else.

This can come off as rather cold and that is certainly not the intention, you don’t want to just ignore people your 3rd stringer is still part of your team and you need to understand why they are bad at their job to figure out how to proceed. There are really four main reasons that someone is awful at their job.

  1. It is a situational issue. or just on a bad project. Not getting along with the tea, Sometimes there are projects that are a no-win scenario. Whether it is political pressure or just ridiculous deadlines. You can identify if it is the situation VS the person by talking with previous managers and previous peers. Has there ever been a good performance in the past? Side note… You are part of the situation! Are you not giving clear feedback? Clear goals. We consider someone a low performer if they are not meeting some agreed on level of performance you are culpable at this level too.
  1. Lack of skill – maybe they just do not know how to do this job, can they be trained? Can it be taught? You will want to partner them up with someone else on the team that knows what they are doing. I remember we went through a reorganization and a highly technical engineer was moved to a team and become a project manager. It was a disaster. He has no idea what he was doing. He didn’t even like project managers much less no how to be one! He did not know what was expected. Through some training and a few months of coaching, he got to where he needed to be and ended up enjoying the role.
  1. Not capable – They may just not be capable. You can’t put someone without the skills or knowledge in a role and expect them to succeed. You can’t put someone who hates people in charge of answering the phone. You cannot expect someone who has never written computer code to become a developer overnight. But I have seen this happen where people get moved into roles that even with years of experience they can’t get better. No matter how much energy you will pour into them you can’t train a dog to be a cat. You can’t do much for people in this spot. You need to find a way to put them on tasks they are suited for or get them out.
  1. Bad attitude – This is the worst of the bunch and hardest to handle. People get pissed. People get screwed over by the company al the time and that bitterness can lead to poor performance. Or they may have some things in their personal life causing the issues. It’s hard to pin down the origin point many times. In addition, it is important to note that a bad attitude can be a symptom of the first 3 items on this list so it is important to rule them out first. A bad attitude is cancer for the team and can very easily spread and undermine your authority. You have to deal with it upfront and quickly. Address it directly with the individual one on one and ask what is going on and what could you change to help out. If someone truly has a bad attitude. There is very little you can do as a manager to fix it. I know I am sure you are a fantastic motivational speaker which might provide a boost of performance for the short term but people will return to their average level of performance over time. You can’t fix it. I was sitting in a meeting with my director and other managers as we looked at all the employees of the organization we had to let someone go. Two people surfaced at being the very bottom of the list. There was some debate about who should be let go and who should be retained. My director settled the argument pretty quickly. I think this guy has a bad attitude we don’t need him around. He’s gone. And that was that. The attitude was the final determinant in who stayed around.

As we talked about you can handle 2 of these 4 situations so what that means is You can fix a low performing employee 50% of the time.

Jack Welch would have us to believe that our talent is normally distributed.

Welch believes that you need to treat the top 20% of people likes stars. “Make them feel loved, hug them, give them cash, give them rewards in the soul and wallet. Do everything for them. For the middle 70%, show them what they need to do to get in the top 20%. For the bottom 10%, tell them why they should move on. Do it over a year or so. Tell them what their shortfalls are, tell them they’re in the bottom 10%, don’t give them a raise, and ask them to leave. Tell them ‘Over the next several months, [we’ll] work together to get you in the right place.’”

Now we don’t always have the luxury of asking our folks to leave but Welch believes that candor is much better than false kindness. I had a member of one of my teams who was vastly underperforming. I had a very candid conversation with that individual and told them exactly where they were following short what was expected of them and if they kept on the current path they would be given a “developing” rating at the end of the year. Do you know what happened? That employee’s performance did a 180 and turned into a valuable member of the team and several months later actually thanked me more giving him the feedback and said no one has ever been clear to me like that! Now I won’t sugar coat it and say that happens every time but a candid conversation is always the right way to go. If he hadn’t turned it around I was prepared to do what was necessary to move on. It is a hard task to look another human being in the eye and tell them they are bad at their job, but you have to do it! Because it’s your job! That’s why you are a manager.

Jack Welch was one of the proponents of a forced ranking system. Where everyone had to follow the bell curve. Where you have this 10-80-10 and everyone is ranked against everyone else. Then a ton of other companies followed suit. The reason… because managers were so poor at managing performance! They knew their workforce was not as good as the performance reviews led them to believe. So they created a culture where people are in competition with one another instead of collaborating and cooperating. Managers are awful and talking to poor performers. We have no one but ourselves to blame when it comes time to stack rank an organization… speaking of stack rank.

Here is an exercise I want you to do.. Go grab a sheet of paper and a pen.

Make a list of your team top to bottom do the stack rank of who is the best and worst… now take a look at that list and make a determination see how much time you are spending with that person each week. So you have identified in the previous exercise which of the 4 issues your team member is facing 1. Situational 2 lack of skill 3 not capable 4 bad attitudes which of these issues your employee is affected by so back to our original question… How much time should you actually spend trying to FIX them?

Your SuperStars your Tom Brady: you should be spending 50% of your time helping them. Not micromanaging they need freedom but supporting them with anything they need. Ask them what they need to be more successful even look for remedial tasks you can take off their plate and give to someone else so they can focus on what they are best at. “We have a tendency reward high performers by leaving them alone” —- but the reality we are ignoring them high performers want to be challenged and get better so you need to make sure they get training and coaching. cross-org interaction. Opportunities to shine. Give them a reason to enjoy working for you or they are going to look elsewhere.

Your backups Brian Hoyer’s: This should be 40% of your time. How can you leverage their time and talents to one day groom them to be the starter? How can they help the superstar? What training and support do they need?

And finally the 3rd string your Danny Etling 10% or whatever is left. Your focus here should be how to move them to another role or get them out of the organization altogether. You need to analyze why their performance is bad which of the 4 categories it stems from Situational, Lack of Skill, not capable or bad attitude and either remedy the issue or move on.

Being a manager is hard and we think we can coach some people up to a median level of performance. Sometimes pride gets in the way and sometimes we genuinely want to help people, and there is nothing wrong with that, but you can do a disservice to your entire team and to your company if you spend an unbalanced amount of time with a poor performer. I know that over my career I definitely got stuck in that loop where I took it upon myself to help a poor performer. I poured in a lot of time and energy trying to get this individual to par, but in the end, the problem ended up being a bad attitude that could not be fixed and after months of effort they had to be let go. I don’t regret trying but I recognize other things slipped because my attention had been diverted. You can’t save everyone, and your responsibility as a manager is now to the entire team’s success. People do not change that much, you can not force them to change. If they don’t care there is no incredible speech you can give to make them care. The hardest thing to accept is a manager is You need to be okay with letting them fail…. It is not a defect of leadership if one of your team members fail. They are adults it is up to them to choose the success that you can help facilitate. Don’t give the work they didn’t get done to a high performer you let them fail. A change will only be facilitated through that failure. Your job is not to make them improve your job is to tell them where they need to improve. The onus is on them. Either they will get the message or they will not be around that long. If you think at some point further action may need to be taken. Document, Document, Document, Document. Every coaching call, every issue and make sure HR is in the loop on what is happening.

Let’s sum this up.

A poor performer on your team what do you do? Don’t ignore them and Don’t tolerate it. Understand the underlying cause of the issue and either fix it or move on, but never spend more than 10% of your time in a week dealing with that person. It is not beneficial to you or the team’s goals.  

Have an idea you want me to cover in a future podcast or perhaps a great story to share? Send me an email!