A manager said to me, ““I assumed leadership of a department of sixteen people about three months ago. Most are reliable performers. A few are really good and one is marginal at best.”
“Would your team be better off if the marginal employee were gone?” I asked.
“No question, much better off.”
“Then why don’t you work with your human resources’ manager to professionally remove the employee?”
“The employee is sixty three years old. He was one of the first persons hired almost twenty years ago when the department was formed. There is scant chance of removing him.”
“Have you tried training and coaching?”
“He’s not really interested in getting better. I think he’s just holding on for a couple of years until he retires.”
When dealing with a persistent, low performer whom you cannot terminate, I think you just have to learn to tolerate the employee.
Be respectful of the low performer as a person, but do not waste time attempting to train, motivate, encourage, or improve the person’s attitude. Minimize disruptions as much as possible. Find work-arounds when you have to. Understand that you may have to check more often than you would like. Quit worrying about it.
“To be a good leader,” lectured a university professor, “you have to build up morale, appreciate what others do, pat’em on the back, show them that you care. Take care of your people; they will take care of you.”
A hardened, construction superintendent addressed his team. “All of you need to know that I expect you to work hard every day. We will stay on schedule and we will follow all safety processes. I’m not here to win a popularity contest. I’m here to get the job done. If you accept that, we will get along fine.”
Who’s right? The polished college professor or the crusty, construction leader?
“It depends on the situation,” you say? In some cases, fun-loving, pat-them-on-the back cheerleaders win the day. In other cases, the no nonsense, get’er-done drill sergeant fills the bill.
Some argue that the really good leaders toggle back and forth between people-pleasers and task-oriented grinders.
Personally, I think Sam Walker, in his book “The Captain Class: A New Theory of Leadership,” has a better answer. Great leaders are relentless (They do not quit.), and they exhibit ironclad emotional control (Don’t get too high; don’t get too low). Most other traits are inconsequential.
“I am frustrated!” a manager said.
“What is the issue?” I asked.
“We are implementing a significant software upgrade. Every week, I meet with the project team to discuss issues and challenges. Toward the end of each meeting, I make a big point about schedule and ask each team member to ensure me that we are on schedule.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “All along, your team has confidently reported that they are on schedule. But as the deadline approached, team members started describing “unexpected” occurrences and began asking for more time.”
While managers anguish over messaging and rumors, researchers Triandis and Gelfand report that upward communication contains more distortions than other directions.
While dealing with upward communication about complicated matters may be akin to wrestling with an eel, some managers erect unnecessary barriers by reacting negatively when they get bad news. Employees sense this quickly and often stretch the data to avoid riling their leaders.
So what is the cure? First, always treat employees with dignity and respect. Second, when mistakes do occur, conduct an autopsy but avoid blame. Third, drill down with question after question after question. Insist on data, documentation and other support.
Reprinted form December, 2016
A six-year old picks up rocks and begins throwing them in the backyard water feature. “Grandma doesn’t want you to throw rocks in the water,” Grandpa warned.
“Don’t tell Grandma,” replied the six-year old.
We can marvel at the quick-thinking six-year old’s recommendation, but it was Grandpa who committed the faux pas. Not wanting to take responsibility for enforcing a policy of “no throwing rocks in the pond,” Grandpa passed the buck to Grandma.
A more adult correction from Grandpa might have sounded like, “I think it best that you stop throwing rocks in the pond. The rocks could clog the drainage or damage the pump.” That is, Grandpa could take ownership of the correction and explain why.
I observe many parallel, buck-passing actions of less effective leaders. A newly-appointed manager explained to an employee, “Because of your excessive absenteeism, Human Relations requires that I reprimand you.”
In response to requests from front-line managers to provide more vacation time to employees, the Regional Manager said, “The CEO believes that our current policy is very competitive.” An employee denies a customer’s request with, “It’s against company policy.”
Effective leaders understand their organizations’ policies and accept responsibility for executing them; that is, they ‘own’ the policies. For example, “Because of your unexcused absences, consistent with our policy, I’ve decided to write you a reprimand. If you continue to miss work, there could be additional consequences. I don’t want that to happen.”
Janice’s manager said to her, “I appreciate your reporting the customer’s failure to comply with all safety rules. But you should have insisted that he wear safety glasses and hearing protectors at all times. If the customer failed to obey, you should have canceled the tour. Consider this to be a verbal reprimand. A copy goes in your file.”
Janice had been responsible for guiding a new customer through on a plant tour. Although Janice had carefully explained all safety requirements prior to the tour, the customer consistently ignored some rules. Janice did not think the customer was ever at risk. Still, she repeatedly and politely nagged him to comply.
At one point, the customer became irritated and said, “This is silly. I’m forty feet away from any moving parts. These things are uncomfortable.”
Janice later commented to a friend that she feared she might offend the customer to the point of jeopardizing a potential high-dollar sale.
Managers described this incident in numerous meetings and promised consequences for all future failures.
Employees heard the message loud and clear. However, over the next year employees reported in confidential interviews that customer violations continued and perhaps even increased. Tour guides simply quit reporting what they thought were incidental violations.
I like Jack Welch’s (the very successful, former CEO of General Electric) approach to performance appraisals.
Manager presents to the employee a handwritten sheet of paper. The left column lists the manager’s view of employee’s achievements. The right column contains items the employee could do better. Both lists focus on performance metrics and team behaviors.
Manager and employee engage in a meaningful conversation. Manager gives examples, “Your error rate is less than .03 percent, almost a ten percent improvement over last period.” “I like that you went out of your way to help our new engineer learn our software tool.”
Sum up by reporting, “Shelly, you are in the top twenty percent of our employees, and I’ll recommend a good pay increase.” Or, “Jackson, your overall performance puts you in the solid seventy percent of our team and your raise will reflect that. I would like to see improvement in meeting deadlines and reducing errors. I’ll help you with those.
Or, “Alford, I’m disappointed that, after considerable training, your response time is still the slowest in our group. Let me help you find another position that is a better fit.”
Conduct these interviews at least twice a year and allow about thirty minutes for each session.
Prior to an all-hands meeting, an employee commented sarcastically to a peer, “What’s it going to be this time?”
“Whatever it is,” the peer responded, “the vice president will assure us that it will improve sales, cut costs and cure cancer.”
Rumors of a new program launch had been racing through departments like a grass fire in a wind storm.
Perhaps the employees should not have been so skeptical. But they clearly remembered several previous aborted improvement efforts.
“Higher-ups” often are not fully aware of the extra work burden created by the latest catholicon. And when managers are prone to latch on to the new “whatever,” employees quickly engage in what Professor Robert Sutton calls “fad surfing.” That is, employees make minimum commitments to show cooperation but do not engage enough to ensure eye-popping success.
Program failures prompt managers to search for the next lever; starting a cycle of: (1) roll out a new program with great fanfare, (2) experience disappointing results, (3) regroup and center on another, even better, remedy.
When a new program flounders, management should not be so quick to search for lightening in another bottle. A refocus on the fundamentals—hiring, training, supervision, recognition—might be the better cure.