About geraldgraham

Professor, author and management consultant.

Effective Leaders Water Where the Flowers Grow

Dennis puts off assignments and rushes to finish them at the last minute, often with errors. 

Dennis’ manager said, “I’ve spent a lot of time with Dennis.  He does well for awhile but always seems to slip back into his old habits.”

How much coaching does it take to cure Dennis’s missteps?  When should a manager realize that additional training and retraining is ineffective?

On rare occasions, low performers will blossom after many hours of coaching and mentoring; but face it, not every employee can be effectively coached.  Here is a reality check—you are more likely to hit three jackpot symbols on a slot machine than you are to change persistently, low performers into reliable, go-to team players. 

Why?  The cause of low performance is more likely a talent issue than a motivation or training issue.  Even the simplest tasks require some level of talent—knack, genetic disposition, gift—for reliable performance.  And you cannot train talent.

How do effective mentors know when to continue coaching and when to look at other options?  As the saying goes, “Water where the flowers grow.”  If employees show quick and sticking improvements, carry on.  If not, continued coaching equals frustration for both parties.

“Manage Them Up or Manage Them Out

“How was your week?” I asked a manager.

“Not so good.”

“Were you dealing with demanding customers?”

“No.  But I spent a lot of time with three of my employees who either made mistakes, missed deadlines, irritated co-workers, wasted effort on low-priority tasks or all of the above.” 

In surveys, I’ve asked hundreds of managers who have recommended termination of an employee if, after reflection, they thought it was a mistake. Almost one hundred percent say their recommendation to terminate was sound, even after months or years have passed.

My observation suggests that we seldom terminate nonperformers too early, but we frequently allow them to linger too long.  Time is a leader’s most important asset, and time spent coaching, cajoling or coddling nonproductive team members is seldom a good investment.  And some studies show that marginal performers take almost twenty percent of their leaders’ time.

The old slogan of “manage employees up or manage them out” may sound harsh but is probably a good practice.  Of course, coach and train employees to get better (manage them up).  For those who perform below standard but do not improve, work with your HR partners to remove them (manage them out).

Avoid “Anger” When Responding to False Accusations

In a meeting, Johnathon lashed out at a Jose, “You had no authority to tell the customer the item was under warranty.  It clearly is not.  Your response made the customer mad.  Now, he is filing a complaint about me.”   

Jose’s face reddened and he angrily responded, “Don’t blame me for that.  I told the customer no such thing.  You were rude.  That’s why he is filing a complaint.”

Experiments by Michael Blanding, written in HBS Working Knowledge, suggest that anger makes a wrongly accused person look guilty.  While there may be reason to be upset when falsely accused, voice tone and nonverbal expressions are likely to carry more weight than facts. 

 Jose may have been more convincing if he had maintained his composure and responded in a calm voice with something like, “Johnathon, I see you are upset by the customer’s complaint.  Can you fill me in on the details?  My hope is to clarify the situation and resolve the customer’s issue.” 

Previous research has well documented the impact of voice tone and nonverbals on how others attach meaning to verbal expressions.  This appears to be particularly true when responding to false accusations. 

Avoid This Danger of Teamwork

Most of the CEO’s executive team seemed pretty charged up about the new, ambitious branding campaign. 

“Do you really think we can pull this off?” he asked his team.

There were many head nods, smiles and comments such as, “It’s a winner.”  “Very doable.”  “I wouldn’t want to be our competition.” 

At an informal gathering later, a colleague asked the chief marketing officer, “Do you really think the CEO’s plan will be effective?”

“Seriously, I have my doubts,” was his response.

“Why didn’t you say something in the meeting?

“I did not want to be seen as an anti-team player.” 

Psychologist Irvin Janis, long ago labeled the danger of stressing harmony among teams as “groupthink.”  In the interest of functioning as effective team members, some individual members falsely express their support for others’ ideas.  This reduces dissenting opinions and sometimes leads to bad decisions.

To avoid meandering into a groupthink culture, leaders can regularly:

  • honor disagreements,
  • aggressively seek contrary views,
  • designate a member to play the role of devil’s advocate, and
  • seek opinions of outside experts.

Additionally, leaders may separate evaluations and decision making.  That is, designate one meeting for evaluating options and a second meeting for making the decision.

Improve Casual Encounters with Three Sincere Questions

“I know your schedule got slammed last week,” a manger said to a colleague.  “I hope this week will be better.”

The colleague answered, “I have a lot of deliverables this week also.  I am just trying to keep my head above water.” 

“I am in the same boat.  I think everyone has a full plate.” 

Now, check out a restructuring of this exchange to go something like this.

“I know last week was a tough. Do you think this week will be any better?”

“I think so but I’m not sure.  There are just too many uncertainties.”

“I heard that.  Is there a particular uncertainty that worries you most?”

“Yes, a major customer is inquiring about advancing a delivery date.  That one worries me.”

“Really.  Is it the same customer we had trouble with last quarter?”

In the first conversation, the greeter inquired and then began telling his story, “I’m in the same boat . . .”

The second conversation began with a question and followed up with two specific questions based on the colleague’s response.  A recent Harvard study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that a sincere question and two specific follow-up questions made the other party feel more respected and appreciated.

Do Not Expect Perfect Harmony Between Your and Your Leader’s Methods

“I wish he would be clearer about how he wants this analysis done.”

“She tells me to use my judgement and then disagrees with my decision.”    

“He asks for too many status reports.  They take a lot of my time.” 

These are just a few of the hundreds of responses to my question, “How do you think your leader could improve?” 

Face it.  We are complex beings with wide varieties of behaviors.  Get any two employees, even high performers, together for two minutes to discuss their leader and you can be sure they will find something that irritates them.

So how do you handle the differences between you and your leader?  Do you become aggressive and openly defy decisions?  Sulk and become distracted?  Continuously whine to others and lobby against the leader? 

Do you act professionally by offering other options when you disagree while willingly accepting your leader’s methods? 

A departing staff member once said to me, “I enjoyed working on you team.  I did not agree with all your decisions or methods, but I don’t agree with everything my spouse does either and that has worked out pretty well.”

Put differently, if you were the leader, would you hire someone like yourself?

Beware of “Social Loafing” in Teams

Janus said to me, “Approval of some decisions requires signatures of eight team members.”

“How does that affect you?” I asked.

“Well, a lot of documentation accompanies each decision; and to be honest, I don’t always scrutinize everything.  Sometimes, I just sign it.” 

“Do you worry that you might support a bad option?”

“Not really.  Seven other highly-qualified people are involved.”

Janus engaged in social loafing; that is, he shirked his responsibility and relied on other team members to fill the void.

Max Ringlemann, a French engineer, coined the term “social loafing” decades ago because of a rope pulling experiment.  In groups of two, three and eight, Ringlemann asked participants to pull a rope.  Members in larger groups put in less effort than individuals in smaller groups.  

Social loafing in work groups may slow decision making, impact performance negatively and create frustration among team members.  Studies of students’ group projects show rampant vexation among some due to others failing to do their “fair share” of the work. 

To reduce social loafing in work teams:

  • include only members whose skills are required,
  • identify specific and measurable objectives,
  • set a hard deadline, and
  • assign five or fewer members to a team.