No one wants to be merely adequate. Most of us go into a job wanting to perform well, to know we are making a difference, and to add value to the world around us. Despite our positive intentions, from time to time we may lose focus for a variety of reasons. Maybe we shift our work self out of high gear and move either into a lower gear or move completely into neutral. While this relaxation of focus is understandable as we bring our human natures to the job, the lack of focus is not tolerable on a long-term basis. This is where great managers can make a world of difference in the success of an employee, or they can lose their impact altogether.
Many managers I speak with lament the energy and distraction created by a few low-performing staff members. They worry about them, tell stories about them, complain or vent about them, and frankly, waste quite a lot of time on the people who are producing the least. This is a flawed approach for two reasons. First, this robs the high performers of the attention and feedback that they deserve. Managers spend a disproportionate amount of their time on those who produce the least value. They give their best energy and effort to correcting and fussing over those who need to move on, and they tend to give less energy to those who are doing the most good for the organization. This is often justified by believing that individuals who are high performers do not require much attention.
Attention should certainly be paid to low performers. What is happening with them and can we help them succeed? Do they have a disadvantage that we as managers can help them see and work through, do they have a health issue or family issue for which we can provide them guidance or direct them to an employee support system. We have options. But doing nothing except complaining and allowing ourselves as managers to be sidetracked from our personal and departmental goals is not a healthy or responsible way to react.
Secondly, because managers are worried about those who are struggling, they often slight high performers. They give them little or no attention other than to give them a quick thank you (after all, they already know they are high performers), along with a request to add one more thing to their plates. In this way, high performers continue to get burdened with more and more work while low performers get most of the personal energy and attention. And often everyone gets roughly the same compensation.
Quint Studor and others have defined this model as non-sustainable and eventually intolerable for high performers. This increased burden leads many high performers to burn out. High performers are arguably compensated fairly, yet it creates an inequitable environment when they are burdened with additional job responsibilities while the middle and low performers carry on at a slower performance level. The low and middle performers often make the same salary as the high performing employee who is easier to manage and more reliable–the type of employee that you wish you could “clone.”
Shifting management focus is the best solution here. While one must keep an eye on the outcomes of the low performers, the high and middle performers should get the attention. They should get positive reinforcement and the middle performers should be getting coached up to be high performers. This will produce the effect of making a more obvious separation of the low performers. This clarification can help managers to work more aggressively with the low performers, and either leverage peer pressure to help them step up their game, or use management support to help them see that it is time to move on to a new organization.