Too Nice

“We’ve got a lot of good folks on our team”, said the senior executive.  “But there are a few people who’ve been around for awhile and just aren’t making the grade.”

I asked the obvious question.  “Why don’t you let the underperformers go?”

His response was, “We’re like a family.  It’s really hard to make that decision.  Sometimes I think we’re too nice.”

What does “too nice” mean in this context?

It means that some people will have to work harder to compensate for the underperformance of others.

It means that managers will be spending valuable time monitoring underperformers rather than doing things that matter to customers and shareholders.

It means that employees will get mixed messages about what is appropriate behavior.  Under performance is contagious.

It means higher expenses so there’ll be less money for new product development, employee benefits and returns for investors

Allowing these things to happen because you want to avoid a difficult decision doesn’t actually sound “too nice”.  It sounds irresponsible.

“Nice” is actually shorthand for a set of values that the organization holds dear.  Values like “customer first”, “integrity”, “accountability”, “innovation” and “teamwork”.  In my experience, someone that is underperforming is likely not living up to the values of the organization.  By being “nice” and not taking action on underperformers, managers stop living up to their organization’s values too.  There’s no way around it.  It’s not “nice” to let underperformance fester.

Addressing performance issues is tough, but there are ways to make it easier:

  • Communicate when you are disappointed by someone’s performance.  Let the individual know what you expect and give them an opportunity to improve.  Nobody should be surprised when you’re forced to take permanent action.
  • If the issue is competency rather than motivation, consider whether there is another role they would better fit (but don’t simply shuffle a problem person out of sight!)
  • Document examples of underperforming.  This is a pain to do in the moment but you, your HR manager and the person involved will want examples
  • Regularly force rank your staff (or group them into performance categories) and benchmark across the organization to get a fair perspective
  • Don’t let poor performance drag on otherwise you are implicitly setting new, lower standards
  • When the time comes, treat people with respect.  Your issue isn’t with the person; it’s with their performance in this situation.

If you’re still hesitating, keep in mind that someone who is underperforming often knows it and is relieved when they are finally forced out of their predicament.  Moreover, once they recover from the disruption in their lives, they generally land on their feet in a more suitable role.

All things considered, while it may not be “nice”, taking action on poor performance is certainly the right thing to do.

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Doug Michaelides (VP, Head of Sales & Marketing Practice)
 

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