TOLERATING MEDIOCRE PERFORMANCE

In the 30+ years that I have worked with more than 85 business organizations, I never cease to be amazed at the consistent and continual lament of business leaders - CEO's, COO's, owners, etc. - that their organizations are filled with too many mediocre performers.

I ask a few questions:
  • is the problem is unavailability of competent applicants for positions? No.
  • the problem is inadequate compensation? No.
  • is the problem is the absence of meaningful jobs with intrinsic rewards? No.
I then ask if they have told individuals that there performance is inadequate, they always say, "Yes, I told them but they don't seem to listen".

When I then get to know some of the "mediocre" performers it is not too difficult to determine what they believe to be the perception of the boss regarding their performance. Invariably I am told either:

  • they don't know because their boss hasn't told
  • them but "no news is good news"; or,
  • "my last performance appraisal indicated that I was doing okay"; Or,
  • "I haven't heard anything but my last merit review was satisfactory"; or,
  • "the boss told me a few things I needed to improve upon and I'm taking a course on that subject; or,
Why don't bosses care enough about their colleagues to "tell it like it is"? Even organizations with fairly sophisticated performance appraisal systems seem to have the same problem - people simply don't know where they stand.

How can an employee be expected to continuously improve if their boss won't level with them?
A case in point. Working closely with the CEO and other executives of a FORTUNE 500 company, I consistently heard the CEO and other senior executives talk about the Vice President of Human Resources and his performance, (we'll call him John). On some occasions they would speak very positively of John's performance. On other occasions they would bemoan his total lack of performance.

After hearing this diverse dialogue about John's performance, I suggested that these executives appeared to have mixed feelings about his performance. They acknowledged that they did, in fact, have mixed feelings about John's performance. They told me that they felt very confident about John's capabilities on about 50% of his job. On the other 50% of his job, their perceptions and feelings were very negative.

I suggested that someone should let John know how these executives, including his boss, felt about his performance. The CEO, John's boss, concurred and said that he would talk with him on the following Tuesday since I would be coming in and having dinner with John on Tuesday evening and could get a sense of John's reaction. Okay - we've got a plan!

Over dinner with John the following Tuesday evening, I asked how he was doing and inquired into his family. John said, "I'm doing great. I had a great talk with the boss today and he is very pleased with my performance."

The following morning, I talked with the CEO and told him of John's reaction to their conversation the previous day. The CEO was incredulous. "How can he possibly have gotten that message?"

After a lengthy discussion, the CEO said he wanted to try again to give John the straight feedback that he deserved. The CEO asked me to help him script a discussion so that the message would be clear. On a ruled pad, we listed two columns: CEO on the left and John on the right. In meticulous detail, we outlined alternative comments and reactions:

CEO
  • 1. Good Morning, John; How are you and the family doing?
  • 2. Want some coffee?
JOHN
  • 1. Fine boss. The wife and kids are doing great.
  • 2. No thanks.
On and on we went until we had completed five full pages of scripted dialogue with alternatives depending upon John's response. The CEO rehearsed his script and agreed to talk with John the following Monday. Since I would not be at that client that week, the CEO agreed to call me and let me know how things turned out.

The following Monday evening, as I was checking in to my hotel about 9:30 p.m., I had a message to call the CEO "no matter how late". I called the CEO who responded, once I identified myself, with a lot of anger. "You S.O.B. Our meeting fell apart. It can't be that simple."

I asked what happened. The CEO said, "Well, things went well until I got to the second page where I said 'John, about half the time I think you do a great job and the other half of the time, you don't seem to know what you are doing.' That's when the script had to be thrown out."

The CEO went on to say that John responded to the half-half comment by saying, "Well, I'm not surprised. My job has grown dramatically as the company has grown. I'm competent to do half my job and don't have a clue about the other half. I think that I should to two things: First of all, I should help you and the rest of the Executive Committee establish the specs for a fully qualified VP of Human Resources and put in place a process to acquire a competent replacement for me. Secondly, I would like to look around within the company to see if there is a role that I can play that will add real value to the company."

End of story: Within six months, John had found a position within the company that everyone felt he could do well and a fully qualified replacement was on board.

As the CEO and I debriefed on this experience, he realized that this situation had been made much more complicated than it needed to be because he (the CEO) had not really leveled with John. "It's so simple when you do it right, isn't it?", the CEO commented.

Why don't more senior executives take the "simple" route?

I believe that senior managers believe that their primary role is to "not rock the boat" and to avoid conflict among employees at virtually all costs.

In my discussions with senior officials, they invariably "pull punches" when talking with their colleagues. They use circumspect hints or suggestions. They seldom clearly state what is and is not satisfactory performance in ways that has meaning. Seldom do senior executives practice HWIKIWISI - How Will I Know It When I See It!

For many years, I felt that this was because the senior manager him/herself didn't know what "it" was or looked like in the real world. Then I found that they, generally, in fact do know. When pressed, they will say that they don't confront for any number of reasons ranging from "that is the Personnel Department's responsibility" to "I don't want to break his/her spirit" to "you just can't get good people these days".

I believe the problem rests in a mistaken image of the role of a senior manager or executive. Until senior management officials acknowledge that their primary roles are to:

  • ensuring that what is expected of employees is established, and communicated and understood in concrete terms; and,
  • teaching, coaching, counseling employees - to help them perform as well as they can; and,
  • taking decisive action when employees don't make the grade.

" Decisive action" is not "parking" people; shunting them aside. "Decisive action" is

  • insuring that employees know clearly what is expected of them
  • providing assistance, education and training, coaching and counseling and feedback to employees
  • and accepting that, when these first two don't accomplish required changes and improvement, there is not an appropriate fit between the employee and the requirements of the organization and getting the employee out of the organization
So long as senior officials delegate this "nasty" responsibility to others and/or hold on to the belief that they must be seen as "Mr. Nice Guy" or "Ms. Nice Gal" rather than as keepers of the organizations values, mediocrity in management ranks will continue.

In fact, organizational performance will continue to decline. Continuing to employ mediocre managers clearly demonstrates that excellence is not valued in the organization. Not by our words but by our deeds....

What to do:
  • Demand that clear, concise, "idiot proof" expectations are established and understood by all employees in HWIKIWISI terms (enlist the input of employees in establishing those expectations).
  • Create and maintain a "straight from the shoulder" performance appraisal and feedback system including extensive training of appraisers in giving feedback and coaching.
  • Provide the broadest possible array of alternative mechanisms for individual development.
  • Insure that compensation systems are truly compatible with 1 - 3 above.
  • Bite bullet and remove individuals whose performance is not acceptable - Don't promote or park them!