The 3 Levels and Impact of Leadership Performance

— November 18, 2016

A CEO I was working with recently mentioned something powerful to his executive team. Of all the leaders he had let go in his career, he never wished he had waited longer before taking action. In fact, he realized he had sometimes waited too long before taking action.

This insightful message reminded me of a very unique word I had heard years earlier that describes a person’s performance. The term was “whelming.” Some leaders can be underwhelming, performing below expectations, and others can be overwhelming, delivering amazing levels of value to the organization. Then there are some who are just whelming—not adding much value but also not messing up a lot, just delivering average performance.

It takes courage to communicate an improvement plan to the underwhelming performers. And it takes time and planning to develop, mentor, and challenge the high achievers. These are acceptable and often expected responses to obvious levels of both low and high performance. The hidden, uncertain and yet real challenge of leadership is what to do with the whelming performers. Do you allow them to continue in their role because they keep the lights on and stay under the radar? Do you deny them developmental opportunities because they aren’t the star performers? Let’s take a closer look:


The first step is to identify each of your leader’s current level of performance. Once this is clear, informed decisions can be made to achieve higher performance across the team, department, and organization. We’ll start with the underwhelmers, or detrimental level.


Leaders and employees who fall in this category tend to prevent progress, destroy value, and hamper fruitful conversations and idea generation. For whatever reason, they are clearly not the right fit for their job and/or organization. Perhaps they lack competence, experience, or maturity. Or they choose to misunderstand the organization’s direction and consistently act or talk against it. Whatever the reason—whether it be behavior, attitude or performance, it is clear they frequently take away more value than what they contribute.

Addressing this level of performance involves simple, frequent, and straightforward feedback with a short leash and a fast timetable to turn things around quickly or else mutually understood consequences will occur. This involves a performance improvement plan in concert with HR and contingency planning if and when an exit occurs.


As mentioned before, neutral is the hardest performance level to identify. Consider what level the leader is not. If they are not detrimental (underwhelming) or high performing (overwhelming!), they are most likely in the neutral level. They may occasionally add value, but not often or consistent enough. This performance level is also characterized by costly errors due to large egos, an unwillingness to adopt collaborative approaches, withholding or ignoring detailed metrics, or an overly loyal yet underperforming team.

The biggest concern when addressing this performance level is not communicating high expectations and consistently making excuses when neutral performers don’t hit the mark. Sanctioning average performance over time will do more to erode engagement and excellence than almost anything else a leader does. Unapologetically set high expectations, provide the tools and development for success, provided the space for someone to thrive and then expect to see consistent thriving! When one does not advance out of this performance level, they may slip into the Detrimental level and appropriate actions need to be taken.


Leaders and employees in this category exhibit a high degree of ownership, consistently show proactivity in addressing challenges, and translate the organization focus into day-to-day execution. These are trusted leaders who can deliver and do it without casualties. They seek solutions and encourage others to solve problems, not complain about them. They keep customer needs in clear sight and use collaborative approaches. And they fess up to mistakes, learning from them as they go.

The best thing to do for people at this level of performance is to get out of their way! Provide a clear vision for the future and let them build change coalitions, engage in courageous conversations, and encourage innovative approaches. Give them tools, coaching, developmental feedback, and opportunities to challenge them. Build confidence in them so they can show up each day like the leader they know they can be. Watch how their performance elevates the performance of others!


The CEO referenced earlier was not talking about low or high performers; he was talking about waiting too long to act on the neutral ones—those who are only whelming in their leadership roles. For organizations who are striving to transform themselves, to become the best place to work, and to attract, grow, and retain amazing talent, there is little room for mediocrity led by whelming leaders.

Those who settle for neutral performers send a message to the workforce that doing just enough is enough. That perception will not create a high performing culture with leaders that inspire and engage.

Identifying the right performance level of each leader and employee is a great first step. Acting on the detrimental and high performing levels is important and expected; but paying attention to minimizing leaders in the neutral level may even be more important to building high-performing individuals, teams, departments, and overall organization success.

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Author: Daniel Stewart

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