Anchors Aweigh

what’s dragging your team down?

Last week, I had a great conversation with an old boss (and friend) of mine who’s known me for 3+ decades. As I was standing in the lobby of his building, I read the press release about his being named as CEO of the Year by the local business journal.

In the interview for the article, he was asked “What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business, and what can we learn from it?” His answer, “My biggest mistakes have been not to get rid of a few sub-standard employees fast enough — those who have a corrosive or detrimental effect on good employees,” got me to thinking about some of my clients who just can’t seem to bring themselves to let people go.

It’s never fun to fire people – unless you’re kind of twisted – but waiting around until it’s a clean kill hurts the organization far more than any temporary discomfort you might feel.

And it’s not what leaders do.

Now, I’m not talking about getting rid of the folks who broad jump across the line and violate clearly understood non-negotiable organizational policies like stealing, selling drugs at work, or sexual misconduct. That’s easy, because they kinda brought that on themselves.

No, I’m talking about the employee who’s dragging the team down, probably doing just enough to keep his job, but not pulling his weight. Nice enough, but would rather talk about plans for the weekend than plans to accomplish the week’s goals. And always more willing to listen to other people’s problems than find solutions for his own.

Ship's anchorThe problem with that kind of employee is that they are powerful anchors to an otherwise steaming vessel. You are losing discretionary effort from your good employees because you put up with Jimmy Do-Little’s bad behavior or sub-standard performance. You won’t get the best out of your best, because they don’t think you care whether they give their best or not.

I’ve heard a lot of different excuses over the years. My favorite: it’s too hard to fire someone. Well, guess what? If it was easy, anyone could do it, and I doubt your boss believes she pays you to only do the easy stuff. There’s always a way; just put your big-boy pants on do your J-O-B.

Reorganizing Johnny out the position, or worse, transferring him to a different part of the organization may sound like the easy way out, but don’t believe for a minute your remaining employees didn’t know exactly why you did what you did. It’s pretty hard to respect a leader that won’t lead.

And don’t tell me, “I have too much heart.” You don’t get to hide poor leadership by making it sound like a good thing.

We let poor performers go to improve the chances we can keep our kick-ass performers. The two don’t mesh well on a team, and if you have to make one or the other unhappy, I sure wouldn’t choose the latter.

If someone’s performance is substandard – thus, unsatisfactory – tell them exactly that. No need for it to be a particularly difficult conversation, just follow these simple steps:

  1. Help them understand what performance or behavior is unsatisfactory and why.
  2. Tell them clearly what your expectation is, and get a commitment from them to change their ways.
  3. Set a reasonable time period for the change, and tell them exactly what the consequences are for not meeting expectations at the end of the period.

That’s not rocket surgery, but it does require you to put some thought into the conversation before you have it. And taking the time to give effective feedback is what leaders do.

Leaders also follow through with what they say they’re going to do, so if the miscreant doesn’t improve, the consequences shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Even better, you won’t have any reason to feel uncomfortable during the discussion. Another case of ‘they kinda brought it on themselves.’

Okay, chances are good that if you’re reading this, you’re not the kind of leader who would put up with Jimmy Do-Little. But think about the other leaders and managers in your organization… do any of them seem to have trouble letting the powerful anchors go?

If so, do their team – and the company – a favor and send this to them.

It’s the least a leader would do.

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