Thursday, July 1, 2010

Which Kind of Team Member is the Most Challenging to Lead? (and what to do about it)

SmartBrief on Leadership recently posed an interesting "SmartPulse" question to its readers:

“Which kind of team member is the most challenging to lead?"

Here's the results (along with some advice from consultant Mike Figliuolo):

1. The poor performer who brings others around them down: 45.49%

2. The solid contributor who lacks motivation to grow: 24.28%

3. The poor performer who genuinely wants to improve but can't seem to do so: 18.49%

4. The high performer who is rapidly rising: 11.74%

"Three-quarters of you indicate the most challenging folks are those who lack motivation. Here's my challenge to you as leaders: It's YOUR job as their leader to create that motivation. Your task is to find that which deeply inspires and challenges them and unleash it. Get to know their deepest desires and figure out how to link their work to the achievement of those personal goals. I hate to say it, but the motivation that's lacking in these hard-to-lead folks points to the heart of what leadership is: inspiring others to do great work because they want to." --Mike Figliuolo, managing director of ThoughtLEADERS LLC

I feel like the poll results leaves leaders hanging, as it begs the question (to me at least) – “OK, so what?”

I’d like to offer SmartBrief readers a little more advice on how to lead these four team members:

1. The poor performer who brings others around them down: 45.49%
I can understand why 64% of readers picked dealing with poor performers as their biggest leadership challenge. Raising individuals and team performance from poor to acceptable or from good to great is indeed the essence of great leadership.

With all due respect to Mike (and I have a lot), ALL poor performers are not the result of a leader’s inability to motivate. No matter how hard you try, you’re never going to motivate a pig to fly. You’re only going to waste a lot of time and energy (at the expense of your solid and high performers), and you’ll probably just frustrate and irritate the pig as well.

There will be times when a leader, after having tried all other options (appealing to someone’s internal motivation, incentives, punishment, training, coaching, clarifying expectation, etc, etc, etc,) just needs to make the tough call. Firing a poor performer is gut-wrenching and hard. That’s one of the reasons management is not for everyone.

However, inaction or dragging out a situation will only prolong the pain of the poor performer. And yes, if a team has the perception that a manager is oblivious or not concerned about poor performance, it can drag down the performance of the rest of the team.

One of the biggest mistakes new leaders make is thinking they can turn around every team member they inherit. Most of them will tell you in retrospect, they took way too long to take action. 90 days is usually long enough to asses a team and determine who belongs on the bus.

My advice: If you have a poor performer that’s dragging down the performance of your entire team, get with your HR rep ASAP. Follow an accelerated progressive discipline process. Be fair, consistent, and respectful, and you shouldn’t have any regrets.

2. The poor performer who genuinely wants to improve but can't seem to do so: 18.49%
I'm taking these out of order because this scenario is similar to the first one, in that they both are about dealing with a poor performer. However, not all poor performers should be treated the same.An employee that’s underperforming BUT has tenure, a great attitude, gets along well with co-workers, and is really trying their hardest deserves more attention, more training and coaching, and a little more time to improve. However, at the end of the day, it’s still all about performance and meeting the expectations of the job. The days of creating busy work and watering down jobs to accommodate “nice” but incapable employees ended sometime back in the 1980s.

As a manager, I’ve found these scenarios to the most difficult, but, they can have a happy ending. It’s often possible to find another role, either internal or external, that may be a better fit for the employee’s strengths. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting passing off a poor performer to some unsuspecting manager. It’s about truly finding a legitimate better fit for a good employee.

Again, work with your HR rep, however, instead of heading down a just a disciplinary path, try to find an alternate path for the employee in the form of another role.

3. The solid contributor who lacks motivation to grow: 24.28%
This one’s actually not a bad leadership challenge. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with solid contributors. Those “B players” are the lifeblood of most organizations – we need them and should figure out ways to thank them, motivate them, hug them, and retain them every day.

After all, not everyone wants to move up or get promoted. Some people love what they do and don’t want to do anything else – they’ve found career nirvana.

However – if “lacks motivation to grow” was interpreted as “doesn’t want to keep their skills up to date” – then THAT’S a problem. They may be a solid contributor today – but if they don’t have the desire to continuously stay current in their field and build the skills needed to compete, they’ll soon no longer be a solid performer. Sometimes, a manager needs to have the tough conversation and spell this out to an employee. If not, you’re doing that employee an enormous disservice and setting them up for failure.

4. The high performer who is rapidly rising.
11.74% say leading this kind of team member as their biggest challenge?! REALLY?!

Maybe there’s a stereotype that a high flyer is spoiled, demanding, overly ambitious, etc… While that may be true for some (and I would argue that if it is, that’s not really a high performer), the majority of successful, high potential employees are the most rewarding to lead.

I sometimes find that insecure managers might find it challenging – because they feel threatened – but that’s not the norm.

For the most part, leading a high flyer is one of the most rewarding aspects of leadership. It’s fun to challenge, stretch, coach, mentor, and learn from them. For more on leading high potentials, read this and this.

How about you? Who are your most challenging employees to lead?


Anonymous said...

In my experience the most difficult employees to manage and lead are the ones who are good but believe they are great and that you couldn’t live without them. It can be a challenge to find the right balance between motivating the employee to do their best work and keeping them from orbiting into space as the greatest employee ever. Any suggestions?

Dan McCarthy said...

Anon -
Good question, I'm sure we've all had a few of those, as employees or coworkers.
As a leader, it's important to make sure that someone like that is geeting good feedback, maybe even some measurable standards and goals. A lack of self-awareness can be a real derailer. One of the hardest parts of being a leader is being the person who has to provide constructive feedback, and the person just won't beleive it. The natural "fight of flight" survival instinct is strong when it comes to feedback. Multi-rater assessments can often help someone see how they are percieved by others, and a good coach or leader can help turn that feedback into a development plan.

Mike Figliuolo said...

Great post Dan. Thanks for expanding on the thoughts from the poll. I concur with your advice and conclusions. While it's hard to suss out all these nuances in a 200 word SmartPulse analysis, I think we're both thinking exactly the same things.

Thanks for taking the time to expound upon these points. Any time you want to write a guest post over at the thoughtLEADERS blog, you're more than welcome to.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dan,
I'm glad you brought up the challenge of letting an employee go who vaguely, but continuously underperforms. It makes frequent, not sugarcoated performance reviews the more important - to not surprise the underperforming employee when he/she gets fired. Helping the employee find a position that is a better match for his/her skills is awesome.
About #4: I think it can be difficult to lead a high performer who is rapidly rising. While the star performer is 'waiting' on his/her promotion to a new position, a manager has to make sure he/she receives plenty of challenges and training (motivation) as to not lose the employee to another company in the meantime. Also, a manager should seek to it that this fast rising employee develops emotional competencies that enable him/her to perform effectively at a higher level. Happy July 4th! Off to marinate the hamburger patties... :)

Lakshman said...

Great Pot Dan. I'm one of the ardent followers of your blog, and I wanted to add one more category to this list. There could also be another type of person, "the great performer who brings others down". This person is mainly focussed on his own abilities and growth and thinks the work he can deliver is more significant than what the organization wants. This person also will have the motivation to grow, but the insecurity of another person growing as well. Any thoughts?

Dan McCarthy said...

Mike -
Thanks for stopping by - you're a good sport.

wdywft -
Thanks for elaborating on the star performer "challenge".

Lakshman -
Thanks. I have never, ever, seen a great performer that brings others down. How? Again, true great performers are not selfish or arrogant - they raise the performance of those around them. Others learn from them.
I love my reader's comments, and maybe you guys are playing devil's advocate, but it makes me want to write another post called "The are NO disadvantages to leading great performers". That's what a great leader strives for - to enable their team members to achieve extraordinary results. Give me a team of these any day - life is good when your team is overachieving.

Tim Griffith said...

If I might expand on Lakshman's comment/question a little bit...

I agree that this is not a description of a true "great performer," there are people who individually do a great job of meeting their own objectives, but simultaneously hurt others. Maybe it's a sales guy who has great numbers but is abusive to others on the team, or the brilliant engineer who won't get behind any product developmet idea that isn't his own.

Perhaps we can title this character the "Toxic high performer." I believe that this situation presents a significant leadership challenge - I'd also be interested in hearing your thoughts on this.

Dan McCarthy said...

Tim -
Nice description - I know the type. I like the "toxic high performer" label. OK, you guys have inspired me - I'm going to write a post on this, but with a twist.

Mary Ellen said...

Of course I would choose the poor performer that brings everyone else down. The trick to dealing with folks like this is to be mindful of the situation. Be open and aware of what might be causing this person to be bringing the others down. Allowing yourself to be in the moment with your team, aware of the relationships and interactions around you may give you an idea as to what is prohibiting this employee from working at his/her greatest potential. All the tips are helpful, great post!