Mistakes team leaders make: Tolerating poor performance

February 11, 2015 liane
Person blowing bubbles in a meeting

I sat in my boss’ office (in a past life) for the fourth consecutive monthly one-on-one where we didn’t talk about me, but instead talked exclusively about the poor performer on the team. To say I was getting bitter would be an understatement. I was young and inexperienced, but consensus was that I had potential.  So why was my manager spending the one hour a month that was reserved for my development talking about the slacker who couldn’t manage his way out of a wet paper bag?

For this last post of my little series on mistakes team leaders make, I’m going for the jugular with one of the biggest and most pervasive problems; team leaders who tolerate poor performance. I’ve seen it, you’ve seen it, and I’m done with being nice about it.

Tolerating poor performance

Stop and think about the poor performance that you are tolerating or even condoning on your team.

Think about the full range of the problem child spectrum.  Certainly, some transgressions are more egregious than others. At the less severe and less costly end of the spectrum, are you letting subpar work or low productivity slide without saying anything? Do you have someone who has never really changed with the times and now adds very little value to the team?

At the more extreme end, are you naïve about low capability, poor quality, or destructive behavior that’s affecting other team members, your customers, or the business?

Seriously. If you plot your team members from highest value to lowest and look at the bottom names on the list, are you carrying people who you shouldn’t be? Is it time to move the bar up?

What are you thinking?!

I know that you’re not thinking “wow, I sure love having a lemon on my team!”  Your rationale for tolerating poor performance are so much more logical than that. “He’s really making an effort and I don’t want to be too hard on him.” “I can’t afford to disrupt the relationship she has with our key customer.” “I haven’t done everything I can to coach and support him.” Oh yeah, I’ve heard them all. Beautifully rationalized veneers to mask the basic lack of courage to make the right decision for the team.

What you are not thinking

While you’re lulling yourself into a false sense that tolerating poor performance is the nice thing to do, you are ignoring the huge cost to all involved.

The target

After a relatively brief period of investing heavily in coaching and support for a poor performer (which almost everyone deserves), you are deluding yourself thinking you’re doing the person a favor hanging on to them.  Failing in a role is destructive to self-esteem and prolonging that agony is cruel. Make the right business decision and then treat the person extremely well:  Provide transition support, help them understand their strengths, offer to be a reference and be transparent about what you’re comfortable saying.

The innocent bystanders

Every time I speak with high performing team members, their number one irritation is that sub-standard and even dysfunctional team members get away with their behavior.  If you continue to protect a poor performer, don’t be surprised when the high performer high tails it out of there and leaves you to muddle through with the mediocre team you sadly deserve.  While you’re coaching and trying to rehabilitate a poor performer, make sure that you are sending clear messages about your expectations so all can hear them.  You don’t need to publicly chastise, but you do need to make it clear to your team that you’re all over the issue and that good and poor performance have appropriate consequences.

The self inflicted wound

In many ways, you’re taking the brunt of your decision to let the poor performer linger.  You’re either paying the price to your personal brand of letting substandard work out of your team or you’re doing the heavy lifting to get things up to snuff. Sure, it takes more time the first time to give really useful, constructive feedback, if it works, you’re saving yourself a huge amount of time in the long run.

If it doesn’t work and the person needs to go, procrastinating a really difficult 15 minute conversation is costing you countless hours of added work.

Constantly recalibrate with yourself about what you expect from your team.  Be aware of how the changing environment is raising the stakes and the expectations.  Get all over subpar performance with feedback, coaching, and consequences.  If it’s not going to change, don’t drag out the inevitable.  Do everyone a favor and have the guts to make the call. In my experience, you’ll only wish you’d done it sooner.

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