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):

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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
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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?