Some employees literally steal from your organization, but they’re rare, and managing them is straightforward. A big, loud, public kick out the door.
By contrast, employees who steal your time and energy are much more typical, but for some reason – guilt, maybe? – they’re some of the hardest to deal with.
Let’s start with underperformers, team members whose work consistently puts them in the bottom 10 percent. By definition, differentiation would tell you that managers should spend very little time and energy on these folks except to ease their transition to other work; after all, the vast majority of a manager’s efforts should be devoted to hugging, supporting, and otherwise cheering on the company’s stars, its top 20-percenters, and advising and coaching its valuable middle 70.
Why does it almost never go that way? Instead, most managers find themselves in countless productivity-sucking meetings and sidebar conversations about underperformers. “Rick didn’t finish the spreadsheet again, and Sally had to stay up all night so we could have it for the clients. What are we going to do?” “Clare missed another deadline, but I don’t want to push her on it because she said she had a migraine.” “Ralph is killing everyone’s morale with his constant jokes about bankruptcy. Who’s going to shut him down?” And it’s not just the conversations, either. The biggest energy drain with thieves can often be the effort it takes to push past their caveats and excuses, and goad them into doing the work in the first place.
Stepping back from almost any situation with an underperformer, it’s always easy to see the solution. They need to move on — sooner rather than later. Up close, however, organizations tend to draw out departures, as people fret about the employee’s emotional reaction to being let go. Often times, managers feel guilty about putting a friend out of work, or remorseful they didn’t give candid enough feedback along the way, or both. And so, they dawdle and delay. They meet with HR. They toss and turn at night.
We have a friend who’s the CEO of a family real estate development firm with about 300 employees. He told us he spent an entire summer trying to work up the nerve to fire a man we’ll call Harry, who had been with the company for 40 years, and was ensconced as head of special projects. Many considered this individual to be “the soul” of the company; he’d just been around for so long, and he loved to regale his colleagues with heroic stories about the early days, when it was just he and the CEO’s dad working out of a basement apartment. But the CEO and his top team knew the man hadn’t really done his job well for a decade.
“I cannot tell you how many meetings we had in the board room to discuss Harry,” our friend told us. “We worried what would happen to him when we told him. We worried how the organization would react. We talked and talked and talked, and no one could face into what we had to do. It was paralysis.”
Finally, after a summer of stalling, the CEO called Harry in and asked him to retire by Christmas. There would be a grand party and a generous severance. The door would always be open.
Much to the CEO’s surprise, Harry wasn’t surprised himself. He was grateful for the graceful exit. Even more surprising to the CEO was the organization’s response. Nothing short of jubilation. Yes, people liked Harry. They appreciated his contributions to the firm’s history. But everyone had done the calculus. His departure was long overdue.
“I cannot believe how much I was distracted and weighted down by Harry’s situation,” our friend told us. “As soon as he was gone, it was as if I suddenly had swaths of free time to pay attention to the business. I wish I’d done it five years ago.”
That’s our advice to you too, if this story sounds even vaguely familiar.
The most valuable resource you have as a manager is your attention. Invest it in top people and those with the potential to join their ranks.
The same recommendation goes for inveterate conflict-creators. You know the type we mean. The people who consider it part of their job – or their persona — to disagree with just about everything and everyone. Now, sometimes these individuals are very useful. They challenge the status quo; they hinder group-think. And oftentimes, they’re pretty good performers to boot. Indeed, they consider their results their shield. You can’t let me go. I’m too valuable.
Again, such employees tend to steal time and energy, and not just from their managers, from everyone, as meetings devolve into discussions of their objections or opinions. As a manager, you just cannot let this happen. Some conflict is good, but pushback should be coming from every member of the team. When it’s coming from just one to the point of distraction, it’s time to say goodbye. Keeping an inveterate conflict-creator on the team doesn’t make you a good, balanced manager. It makes you a robbery victim.
By Jack and Suzy Welch