Enough Is Enough. Deal with the Non-Performers Already!

After many years in any career, you start to see trends and themes in your work.  One of the trends we have seen over the years is that no amount of consulting, training, or coaching will have a positive and lasting impact on a team when there is a non-performing team member (or members) who is not effectively managed.

In fact, we have seen this in about 80% of our client organizations. Despite committing time and money to improve the team’s dynamics, things inevitably return to the way they were if a toxic team member continues to be a problem.  On the other hand, when the behaviors and performance issues are managed swiftly, long-term gains in morale and productivity are experienced by the team. We’ve noticed such a stark difference in the impact we have with organizations when performance issues are handled effectively that we have become quite passionate about it.  So this article is actually a plea. A plea for you to step up and manage the low-performers!

When a leader comes to us to help them improve morale or team performance, we first explore the dynamics of each team member.  It is important to get insights from each individual because this is where the truths are discovered about everyday work life. When there is one or more member who regularly gets away with negative actions (calling in sick regularly, passing the buck on work, being consistently negative and polluting the attitudes of others, not completing work well or on time, causing trouble for other team members, blaming and pointing fingers, bullying or acting inappropriately, etc.), we know that the only way to successfully re-energize the team is to effectively manage the low performers.

At this point, we hit the pause button so we can ensure the leaders in the team (all who supervise) are committed to upping their game in managing bad behavior.   We require the full commitment of the leader to swiftly handle performance issues throughout our work together and beyond or we cannot in good conscious agree that we will see positive results.  So many leaders struggle with this area. Many prefer not to have to deal with conflict. Others find it too much effort. Some do not know what the “rules” are or how to get help from HR. And sometimes, there is a reliance on hope that things will get better.  At the end of the day, tolerance of low performance is a detriment to the team and the work product which are both key elements of your job as a leader.

Outlined below are the key steps we take when working with a leader to restore a team to excellence. You can follow them yourself just as well.

1. Getting to the root of the issues

There are several steps we follow to explore the team dynamics and uncover the cultural norms that have been established – whether positive or negative.  We look at employee survey information, customer interaction information, individual interviews, and any other insights that can help review the interactions and work performance of the team.

Then we meet with the team and review the insights we gained so everyone can discuss and explore their experiences.

2. Clarify the ideal

We then work with the team to get clear on what the future of the team should look like and review what is getting in the way and what needs to shift. A heavy focus is on actual behaviors, so there is clarity on what actually needs to happen (and specifically what should NOT happen) in order to get to the future the team is looking for.

We make specific agreements so everyone is committing to moving in the same direction and keeping themselves and each other accountable.

3. Start with a Blank Slate

The team can then move forward with a blank slate.  Work resumes and regular meetings are scheduled to discuss progress.  Each team member is encouraged to call out behaviors that are getting in the way of the future.  Ideally, team members work with each other individually on these behaviors, but if tolerance is sneaking back in, then the meetings are useful as opportunities to catch it before it goes too far.  

4. Making progress

Truth-telling is critical to the success of the team. It takes a while for everyone to get comfortable speaking up about what they are experiencing that isn’t working for them.  But as some do, others will begin to do so as well. A team that communicates consistently about how things are going is a team that can be unstoppable. But assumptions and blame must be laid aside and replaced by inquiry and dialogue.

A willingness to ask questions and listen for understanding will have a tremendously positive impact on relationships and ultimately productivity.

5. Celebrate

A team that works hard to transform from dysfunctional to high-functioning certainly deserves to be celebrated.  Along the way it is important to build in opportunities to showcase what each team member has been caught doing well.  Reinforcing the positive behaviors are critical to building a positive spiral and getting out of the negative interactions built up over time.

Leaders, you’ve got to hold trouble team members’ feet to the fire.  If you don’t deal with those who aren’t performing it ends up damaging your own reputation. You end up the bad guy because you are not helping to create a workplace where those who are productive and engaged can actually enjoy coming to work!  How’s that for awful? It is true. Believe us. We hear the commentary.  People lose respect for you because you are not helping to make the situation better. There should be NO tolerance for bad behavior and lack of performance in the workplace.  A paycheck is an exchange of work product for money. Not time for money. If someone is exchanging time for money, that is not someone you want on the team. You want people who want to work, take pride in the results of their work, and contribute to a positive team experience.

People are losing tolerance for leaders who don’t deal with the bad apples.  They are no longer willing to rot alongside them. You will lose good team members.  You will all be frustrated. No one will be feeling great about their work. Your end results and your ultimate impact will be diminished.  Stop waiting for things to get better. Stop waiting for someone to give you permission or have your back. Do it now. Take it from us, you don’t need to pay us to tell you to let someone go who is not right for the team. You already know this. Follow your instincts and let them go if your efforts to work with them aren’t working.  

Jeff Weiner, CEO of Linked In, agrees with us!

“Leaving a member of your team in a key role when it’s no longer the right fit is one of the most common–and costly–mistakes a manager can make.” The least compassionate thing you can do is to leave someone incapable of doing his or her job in that role for too long. By contrast, the most compassionate thing you can do “is to alleviate their suffering by transitioning them out of the role as gracefully and constructively as possible.”

– Jeff Weiner,  during his interview with Inc.com