I was talking with a colleague over coffee today. We are both IT leaders, he's in another industry, but the challenges we face are remarkably similar. We were discussing the challenges of leading teams and sharing strategies on how we handled some of our toughest problems. We talked about employees who don't meet standards - why that happens and what to do when it does. Here are our collective thoughts on the topic.
Very few people come to work wanting to do a poor job. At the same time, some people come to work and do the bare minimum. Others come ready to do their best each and every day. Why is that and how can we manage that?
Clearly, there are life events that impact even our super star performers. Divorces, deaths, elderly parents, problems with children, financial problems, legal problems, the list goes on. So, we'll exclude these because most managers will give every employee a bit of latitude when that employee is faced with difficult life events.
So, those exceptions aside, why do some people come to work each day and do the absolute minimum necessary? Why do others come and absolutely kill it every day?
From my perspective, there are several reasons. In no particular order, these situations are typically found when an employee is a) not in the job for which they are best suited, b) the employee is on a team that does not energize them (work style mismatch is often at play) and/or c) the employee has gradually become less productive and no one has noticed (and the manager has not managed).
Let's look at these in reverse order.
No One Is Watching
When I was a kid, my father always used to say "No one cares more about your money than you do." It wasn't until I was an adult that I understood what he meant. As a manager, no one cares more about overall team results than you do - so you have to pay attention to the details. It's not enough to look at the overall team results and say, "things look good, we're set." I always challenge my direct reports to look deeper. In almost every case, there are opportunities for further improvement. Good enough these days is no longer good enough. What are you doing to make sure that each and every team member is firing on all cylinders every day? What are you doing to make sure that every team member is contributing to the best of their ability?
If you have twenty people on your team and fourteen are doing great, they're probably carrying the load for the other six. That's both unfair and unwise. Those six will become a bit lazy over time and think that under performing is just fine.
Manage every member of your team. Set standards and standard work and monitor results. Expect the best from each of them. Expect optimization and improvement over time. Those sitting at the bottom of the stack should be monitored even more closely. If they can't move up from "barely meeting standards", they should be coached, counseled and monitored to help them contribute more fully. If they can't or won't, you may reach a fork in the road where it's time to part ways.
Remember, every time you expect less from one member of your team, you are placing a burden on the rest of the team. You are also conveying through your actions that poor performance is tolerated and condoned. You demotivate great performers when you do that, so the cost is far beyond the poor performance of just one person.
Sometimes you have a good, motivated person who just gets dragged down by a team dynamic. I've seen where a team that has a very staid, slow-and-steady pace can enervate a dynamic go-getter. The go-getter goes from being energized and excited to frustrated and snarky to teammates.
It's important to watch and carefully manage team culture. Certainly, as the manager, you're not there in the trenches with staff most of the time, so you can't constantly manage it. So, what can you do?
In team meetings, make sure the dynamic is appropriate. Don't allow bullying, snide comments, side conversations, etc. Include everyone fully, don't allow anyone to passively sit on the sidelines.
Model the behavior you expect.
Discuss expected behavior in one-on-ones and take corrective action when you see things going off course.
Re-arrange team seating. Sometimes moving people who don't work well together to different locations can help improve team dynamic. Attempt to seat people near others they like or work well with to improve overall team dynamics. The same goes for duos or trios who tend to gang up on others. Move their seats so they are not together to dilute their influence. Location can actually make a very big difference in team dynamic, for better or worse, so use it to your advantage.
Finally, if you're good at organizing team events, get something going to find ways to minimize differences. One team started a pay day lunch club where everyone chipped in and they bought lunch and ate together. The team dynamic improved greatly because of the shared activity that was easy to participate in and non-threatening (i.e. no skill was needed, no alliances came in handy, there was no way to be wrong, etc.). I'm not very good at activities like these, so I look to my team to see who has the natural inclination to pull these events together and get them to assist in planning and executing events. Leverage your resources.
Outside the Wheelhouse
I've written about this frequently because it's something I feel is often overlooked by both staff and managers. An article in a Harvard Business Review magazine sometime in 2016 talked about this as well. A decade ago, the thinking was that it was important to help people round out their skills so they should be placed in jobs that challenged them to stretch (often in ways that were very uncomfortable for them). However, current thinking is that it's important to allow people to focus in areas of strength. I always explain it like this. I am really good with Microsoft Excel and I can manage my departmental budgets quite well. However, I should never be an accountant. It would drive me nuts. I am great with detail to the extent I need to be, but to be immersed in work that requires attention to detail all day long would have me heading for the exit on Day 1. Other people are just the opposite. They love working in detail and methodically working their way through the day. Chaos, mayhem, solving dynamic problems and negotiating outcomes all day long would cause THEM to head for the exit.
My perfect day is dynamic, uncertain and filled with interesting problems to solve. That's someone else's nightmare. Asking people to work in a manner or in a job that does not call upon their most natural instincts and talents is very stressful for people over the long term.
If you have someone who's under performing, you have to ask yourself if that person is really in the right job. Have they been transferred or promoted into a role that's no longer leveraging their natural talents and work style? Has their job changed underneath of them and they're now expected to do different work or work in a different way?
There's an assessment tool I once used called a Role Behavior Analysis. It was intended to surface exactly these kinds of things. What type of work style did someone prefer? What was their go-to style? How did they process information? How did they respond to uncertainty or even a bit of chaos? This assessment then allowed a hiring manage to know what types of skills and attributes they should look for when hiring into a new role. It's also helpful to have on hand when you're transferring or promoting. (For a description of an RBA, click here).
The key is to understand what the role requires and whether or not this person is in the right role. If they're not, they'll usually under perform and/or show other signs of stress - disengagement, poor attitude, poor performance, attendance issues, etc. (though all of these issues can have other causes besides wrong job).
Of course, none of this is a reason to 'coddle' an under performer. This is just one reason you might examine. In the end, the employee must take responsibility for his or her performance and together, you should be able to figure out what the problem is and how to solve it.
At the end of the day, your job is to get the highest performance out of each employee on behalf of the organization. That means treating employees well, coaching them for success, removing roadblocks and finding ways to align the strengths of the employee with the needs of the organization. Allowing employees to under perform is detrimental to the employee, the team, and the organization and to your professional reputation. So, don't allow someone to simply skim the bottom. Create a plan to address those weakest performers so that over time, you have a strong, fully functional team. It's hard work, but it's what you signed up for when you accepted a job in management.