The Difficulty of Managing Mediocrity

There are few things in personnel management more challenging than managing mediocre performers. For this article, I’m defining mediocrity as people who ebb and flow – they do an okay job usually, often slipping into performing poorly but when approached the reset back to…below average (not meeting job requirements).

As we all know, high-performers are a pleasant problem to have and generally require little management.  And consistently low performers usually fall prey to detailed performance documentation, that leads to termination or the person moving on to another organization.

Beyond the management aspect, most organizations are saddled with very specific Human Resource policies that, at best, make it tedious to manage low performers out of the organization and at worst cultivates a culture of average-to-low performing, long-tenured employees.

If all that is not enough stress, you have to consider the impact that your middling performer is having on the staff that is performing well.  Quickly questions about favoritism or “why does he/she tolerate this?” will bubble up.

If you have a manager as a direct report who is having trouble themselves managing a low performer, you’re faced with the question of whether it’s your manager that is the issue and not the staff member.   This is especially unnerving when the staff member approaches you about being poorly or unfairly coached by your direct-report manager.  We’ve all had an ineffective manager who may not have seen our potential, and you don’t want to be the person perpetuating that poor management.

Finally, pile this all on top of the workload you already have and it becomes truly unmanageable.  The inclination becomes to just shuffle people around and ignore the problem.

Keep in mind, managing organizational performance has two masters. 

First, you and your team are obliged to provide value to the organization in return for remuneration.   Not providing value or providing lackluster value is a breach of that contract.  At the same time, your organization wants to keep turnover low and develop staff members into solid contributors.  These two goals are sometimes at odds with each other but as a solid manager, you must fulfill both.

If you’re in this situation, there are some possibilities:

  1. Work with your Human Resources (HR) department to have a “nuclear option” where you or an executive can release a staff member who continues to be a low performer. Some may say this is a lazy option, but there are simply times when its far better for both parties to part ways without a protracted and often ineffective performance management process.  The option could include a modicum of severance to lessen the blow on the targeted staff member.
  2. If the person in question declines but once you write them up they improve enough to be off “written warning”, you must not start over the next time performance slips. This process should be looked at as a journey.  It should be simple to refer to the four write-ups the staff member had, and the fact that s/he slipped back again when processing their termination form.  “If you improve but return to poor performance, our next step will be termination.”
  3. Take time to plan six months of deliverables and lay out your own plan to measure and document performance. In other words, don’t doll out one task at a time.  Have an overall plan where the deliverables are ultimately aggregated such that if 7 out of 9 deliverables were provided late or in poor quality, it should be sufficient to write-up that staff person.  Do the same for the “written warning” period.
  4. Try to separate your human nature feelings for this person from their performance. So often we’re dealing with someone who is pleasant or command sympathy.  But sympathy is a two-way street.  Your employees must sympathize with the impact they are having on you and your team.  Also, if your feelings are ones of resentment, you have to put that aside and be objective.  A protracted performance management engagement can be derailed if you lose your temper or make a snide remark during coaching sessions.
  5. If you have questions as to whether they are managed appropriately (as in, they report to one of your managers), you can switch the reporting structure to another manager that you have confidence in, or if you have the bandwidth, you can manage this person side-by-side with your direct report and use this as coaching for your manager.
  6. If this person has chronic health issues or is taking medication that is impacting their performance, you must make Human Resources aware immediately. The American Disabilities Act protects employees who health conditions that make it challenging or require additional assistance to complete one’s job.   HR can help chart a course that takes into account their disability or may decide to part ways under a transition plan that includes severance.  Either way, leveraging HR for assistance is key.

I tried something years ago that I would not necessarily recommend unless you have a very good relationship with this person.  I unofficially sat down the low-performer and suggested that this organization is just not a good fit and that if this process were to continue, a) there likely was not a “happy ending” in order and b) the overall process will be stressful for everyone involved.  In this case, the staff member just did not have the programming chops to keep up with the workload.  Working at another organization where he could leverage other skills was likely a better fit.  In the end, they left and were actually much happier elsewhere.  Six months later I ran into this person at the grocery store and they thanked me for encouraging them to leave.

How do you manage mediocre employees?

(image courtesy of Lifehacker)


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