Focus on Low Performers

A source of disaffection and “the great resignation” in the workforce is leaders’ tendency to focus on getting more out of their peak performers and, to some degree, giving up on the low performers. In their defense, managers lack the time, patience, and tools to know how to turn around low performers. However, I would suggest that the biggest dividends in team performance will come from investing in those low performers and Creating High Performers  details a method to do so.

  • A story to illustrate my point.
  • Years ago, I attended a 9-day leadership retreat in Australia.  The design involved putting attendees in situations that challenge their greatest fears and push them to overcome those fears to become more courageous leaders.  Included were fear of public speaking, fear of athletics, claustrophobia, fear of confronting others, fear of losing, etc.On day one, we were told that an Olympic-style athletic competition would be held on the final day.  We were given no information on the events but were instructed to spend 1.5 hours each morning to get our teams ready. Teams were selected based on results from a lengthy run.   The first nine across the finish line were appointed to a different team.  In other words, each team had one of the fastest runners.  The second nine were appointed in the same way.  Thus, each team was relatively equal in running ability going in.

    My team began training by simply running a given distance. We did this for a few days and realized that our elite runners were getting only marginally faster, and those who were in the worst shape were not even finishing our practice runs. We had team members who were smokers, others very out of shape, etc.

    At the end of day two, the team had an epiphany.  Our elite runners were not going to see much improvement from the training.  If this was truly a team competition, we should emphasize improving our slowest runners, those in the worst shape.  Their potential for improvement was huge by comparison.  Instead of imploring and, in some cases, belittling those who were slow, we began encouraging, aiding, and validating the weak performers’ progress.  The team confronted two of our members who were smokers and asked them not to smoke until the end of the competition. They agreed.  At the end of each practice, we cheered on the effort and gains of one another.

    We finished a close second in the competition. For some on our team, this was the first athletic win of their lives, and they reveled in it. For the elite on our team, there was great satisfaction in seeing the moral victory for our lowest performers. In the end, there were tears, which were all about the victory of the weakest performers. The focus on the low performers is what brought us together as a group.

    Managers often choose to improve teams by pushing the elites harder. Already stressed, managers lack the time or patience to turn around low performance. For many, past failures reinforce this avoidance.

    Pushing high performers risks losing them as they view unequal workloads as unfair. Additionally, it leaves untapped what is possible with investment in low performers.

    In Creating Performers, I distinguish between Can’t Do and Won’t Do performance problems.  More attention will not turn around Won’t Do problems, which may explain past failure. Rather, Won’t Do’s must be confronted with a choice: choose to try and be their best, in which case you will help them, or leave the team.  In the Australia example, a Won’t Do problem would have been a team member who refused to quit smoking for the week.  Fortunately, no team member made that choice.

    So, how do you put this to work?  For employees having performance problems, diagnose whether you have a Can’t Do or Won’t Do problem (see Ch. 9 of the book for advice).  Then, act accordingly, i.e., either provide the training/support, etc., needed for Can’t Do problems (use the 7 Questions to diagnose what is needed) or counsel that the employee must 1) make a choice to get help with issues outside of work that are impacting their motivation or 2) make the choice they do wish to perform better with your help, i.e. convert a Won’t Do to a Can’t Do problem. I know it is challenging to find the time to put this to work, but I also know that the dividends from making the effort can be huge.

    Your first reaction might well be, “I don’t have any more time to devote to people management, so this advice is not workable.”  Yes, developing low performers who want to perform will take time, but here is where you can save time.  Get clear through dialogue on what your peak performers need and how often.  They likely will need any information on shifting expectations, clarity on priorities, and feedback (ask about how often and how best delivered).  They also will want continued attention to moving them toward their long-term goals.  But, with dialogue on what they really need, you may find you can shave some time here. Also. if they know that your intent is to focus on improving low performers which lightens the load on the team as a whole they will support this.

    You are likely losing time if you continue to press on Won’t Do employees who are skilled at the game of appearing to be motivated and productive (actually only active), pledging to do better but not producing a result. You can save time by ending that game, getting the employee to take responsibility, and choosing to improve or move on. The time saved here can then be applied to low performers willing to truly work on improving.

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