— May 8, 2018
When you inherit incumbent staff members, you almost never get all grade-A players. But if you wind up with too many people who are stuck at B+ or lower, it can be tough to achieve all the results you’re responsible for.
I’m currently working with a leader who’s been reassigned — at a higher level — back to her old group. She reviewed her team members’ strengths and weaknesses with me, and identified who needed which kinds of development.
Several times, she mentioned one or another employee’s skill, style, or attitude deficits, and described how she could still make the situation work. In response, I noted that she needs to allocate her limited time and energy to learning her new job, working with her team, building relationships with her new peers, and driving a much larger set of results.
I cautioned her about trying to make up for her team members’ deficits. If she’s simultaneously covering 20 to 40 percent of other people’s jobs, what kind of outcomes is she likely to get?
Can — or Should — You Try to Fix Low-Grade Employees?
When you’re busy repairing too many people, or bridging the distance from what they’re really doing to what they should be doing, it’s hard to stay focused on your vision for the entire team and drive toward all of your goals. It’s also difficult to give your top performers enough of your attention to ensure they’re doing their absolute best and achieving everything possible.
If you have to keep checking on B+ employees instead of doing your own work, you can also create bottlenecks in processing, both up and downstream. And if you have to intervene on their behalf because they can’t manage their own interactions, not only do you wind up using your time, but you also expend your political capital.
So how much risk or exposure is it prudent to accept on behalf of B+ employees? Is it wise to cover for them when you’ll have to answer for whatever messes they make, putting your reputation on the line every time their work or interactions go badly? Are their behaviors or communications merely annoying, or are you afraid that, without your intervention, they might do real damage to customer relationships, colleagues, or the brand itself?
Assess Whether B+ Employees Are Worth the Risk
Developing subordinates is a crucial managerial skill, but developing people because they’re not what they should be carries a big cost, and therefore requires rigorous assessment. If you’re working with any individual whose performance is clearly below par, this checklist will help you decide whether they’re worth risking your own reputation on their behalf:
- Identify their upsides, which might include knowing the organization; their technical expertise; their historical knowledge; and/or their interpersonal abilities for keeping the group together.
- Assess their downsides. How much of that gap are you likely to need to cover? Are you compensating for relationship quality, technical ability, their ability and willingness to collaborate, and/or business acumen?
- Look into the future: Can you see this person in it? If you’re confident that you can work an employee up from B+ to A- within 90 days, then keeping them is probably a decent bargain compared to having to start over with an unknown quantity. But if you think it will take more than six months to get someone up to speed, and you’re already providing the same depth of support for other team members, things become a lot more problematic. If the B+ person needs training, can someone besides you provide it? If B+ team members need coaching, can they get any of it from their peers?
Put Yourself into the Picture
Sometimes leaders don’t have the option to replace incumbents and are forced to support people whose performances are sub par. But when a good manager has the leeway to replace incumbents, the choice can be excruciating. It’s common for leaders who care a lot about other people to be too optimistic about how little energy, time, or other resources it will take to turn someone around.
There are also leaders who prefer not to deal with the stress of corrective action, performance improvement plans, or risking having to terminate someone that they and the rest of the team care about. These leaders may not only try too hard to fill in the gaps of their employees’ inadequacies but also try to save employees who have demonstrated loyalty or potential but haven’t been effective at their jobs. Most of the time, though, leaders are thinking about how to get the work done with the least amount of disruption.
In any case, when you have to make decisions about incumbents, get very concrete about the value and output you expect, based on their upsides, as well as exactly what you’ll need to do to cover their downsides. And then consider how you could build up the entire team’s capacity and drive for excellence — rather than draining your own.