A Small Hole Can Sink A Big Ship - The Poor Performer and Other Like Obstacles

Of all the non-actions likely to negatively impact on a team’s morale, it seems none is quite so damning as a failure to respond promptly to a team member’s poor performance. Research consistently contends that business leaders lose most kudos when poor performance is left unattended and poor performers are able to continue their inappropriate behaviour without repercussion. In truth, the condemnation highlights one very critical point of differentiation between effective and ineffective leadership – effective leaders remain focussed on their teams and its members. As easy and non-confrontational as it may seem to simply tolerate and ignore poor performance, the truth is that such a strategy invariably culminates in disillusionment from the very people the business relies most upon – those who consistently produce encouraging outputs.

It is a truth that leaders – both good and bad – have a tendency to react too slowly to incompetent performance, choosing instead to let matters run on too long in the hope they will resolve themselves. This is rarely – if ever – the case! Of course, whilst Jack Welch might suggest the annual removal of ten percent of a company’s poorest performing workers has proven successful in his business exploits, it does appear that such a strategy may be too prescriptive. In truth, such a blanket approach opens one up to the kind of deceit and manoeuvring within the ranks that invariably leads to disharmony, and often culminates in valuable employees being sent packing more for their inability to play the game than their value to the company. It is my belief that the elimination of poor performers requires a far more personalized approach – an approach that can only be implemented when a leader remains close enough to his workforce to accurately appraise performance.

Business leaders have a duty of care to ensure any team member accused of poor work performance is given every initial opportunity to redress their performance discrepancies. In truth, any performance failings that have become terminal should be treated as an indictment on a system that has failed to recognize the trend toward inappropriate performance. By ensuring team members are properly inducted into the requirements of their roles, and then ensuring a sufficiently frequent process of monitoring is completed, it has been my experience that most episodes of poor performance can be resolved before they become incurable. Moreover, because businesses rarely set out to employ people they believe to be incompetent, it must be assumed those who are later accused of poor performance are either victims of poor appointment procedures, or a culture that fails to ensure their growth. In either case, there appears merit in business leaders assuming some responsibility for the ultimate lack in performance.

Nevertheless, of all the commitments a leader must make to their staff, none is as critical for work productivity than a commitment to both identify and remove the obstacles that are most likely to hinder overall work effectiveness. By putting themselves in a position to step back from their environment, business leaders of quality are best able to identify downward trends in a staff member’s performance and most able to create an environment most conducive to an efficient workflow.

And potential obstacles can be many and varied, including poorly conceived and inappropriate system through to personal habit that inadvertently restricts the individual staff member’s ability to realize their potential. Obstacles can be in the interactions of teams - some of which are conducive to an enhanced workflow whilst others are dysfunctional and hinder the convivial atmosphere that is a precursor to work effectiveness. And the astute leader ensures they are in a position to most ably recognize and rectify whatever the potential distracter may be – regardless of what the specific obstacle may be, a leader’s job is to remove any obstruction that can negatively impact on the performance of others. Of course, being able to spot impending dangers and impediments is not a skill freely given to all, but rather it is a compilation of empathy, immersion in the business and awareness of both the self and the business.

It is to this affect that many potential obstacles can go undetected by the unsuspecting custodian, or more particularly by the custodian too immersed in a head-down task that inevitably engages their attention away from a looming catastrophe. Invariably, the kind of dysfunctional habit or process that culminates in significant disturbance to an organization’s otherwise effective performance can commence as a very minor distraction that could easily have been resolved. However, it is through a procession of ignorance that even the most minor of hiccups can blossom into terminal heart disease. It has been my experience that most significant obstacles commenced their lives as blips on the radar, but left either unnoticed or resolved these blips can soon spread, much as a forest fire takes a hold of its prey.

Removing obstacles for people is a fundamental responsibility of leadership, but one that is frequently ignored or undervalued. It should be the aspiration of all leaders to generate the kind of atmosphere and engagement that makes every person’s working life as fulfilling as it can be. Sadly, the frustration associated to obstacles at work (including the performance of others in the workplace) is one of the primary determinants of a person’s satisfaction or otherwise – and yet a simple process of surveying would in most circumstances deflect any such impediments long before they had time to gain traction in a business. It is a fact that disease festers if left unattended – and unattended obstacles are the single greatest disease of any business.

Astute business leaders remain on the lookout to detect anything in their environment that may indicate a trending in the wrong direction. These leaders ensure they position themselves so as to regularly survey their landscape, in the pursuit of any occurrence that has the potential to grow into something less desirable in the organization. They recognize that negative trends and incidences can spread like forest fires if left unattended, and set about extinguishing them before they are given any flicker of evolving. Perhaps there is a conflict between team members, maybe a sense of disillusionment around the poor performance of a work colleague, a potentially redundant product line, or even the coffee in the lunchroom is being served cold – it doesn’t matter how inconsequential the actual event may seem, diligent leadership is active in its endeavours to reverse anything they detect that has the potential to fester and grow.

Within the Kiwis’ campaigns of 2005 and 2006 we applied a similar understanding. Through strategies such as the core group (our senior leadership strategy) and by regularly engaging team members in conversation around how they perceived the team were travelling, we were able to enlighten ourselves to anything that had the potential to derail us to any extent. I vividly recall a core group meeting conducted primarily through the team’s vice-captain and veteran player. Nigel Vagana. Nigel attended the meeting with a sequence of grievances or queries his team-mates believed could be righted if so desired. Much of what was raised appeared to have little bearing on the playing of the game - maybe the balls weren’t inflated to the correct weight, or the team required an adjustment in the timing of our pre-game meeting. Each item was communicated, discussed and a resolution found, whilst Nigel sat in his chair graciously ticking off each of the agenda items as they were raised and resolved. No item on the surface appeared to have the potential to derail the campaign, but accumulatively they contained at least a potential to trend us in the wrong direction. It is a simple example, but one that has implications for all business houses who choose to ignore any possible indicators of discontent.

Astute leadership retains alertness to prevailing circumstances and potential trends, and is always quick to react to any condition it perceives to predispose it to harm or hardship. A small hole can sink a big ship, and quality leadership is committed to regularly surveying its landscape in pursuit of both dysfunctional happenings and inventive opportunities. Hence, whilst business leaders must ensure they remain aware of all opportunities to develop their staff and reward their efforts, they must also remain alerted to unsuitability for task and – possibly more importantly – outright poor performance. Of course, the dilemma for most leaders rests in being able to determine when a person’s lack of accomplishment transcends beyond simply not understanding their role through to genuine incompetence.

It has been my experience that when people don’t understand their role and don’t grasp the purpose of what they are doing, they are irrefutably condemned to achieving no more than sixty to seventy percent of what their potential may reveal they are capable of accomplishing. And the question really is where does blame lie? Is it the fault of the team member that they have not been educated fully in the requirements of the role, or is it the fault of the leadership that failed to provide such knowledge? For mine it is unequivocally the latter, which has failed to unleash the reservoir of talent available to them – or more critically, failed to generate an environment that promotes it. Nevertheless, even with the best laid plans and diligence there still exists the simple lost cause, where genuine achievement is never likely to be an option and effort invested amounts to little more than wasted time.

Business leaders must encourage employees to move into other areas when it becomes unequivocal that they are pursuing a lost cause. Whilst it may seem harsh, the fact remains that many people will simply not possess the necessary attributes to accomplish anything of consequence in a particular role or profession. Even from a personal perspective (regardless of the company’s needs) participation for the sake of participation may be a good thing to a point, but at some point in time putting one’s energies into an alternate activity is the most appropriate thing to do. Whilst one would never want to advocate quitting, somehow quitting isn’t quitting when it becomes abundantly apparent that the team member is investing in something to which they have no natural ability or inclination. My reality is that most people (and maybe all people) possess a unique skill from which they can gain personal definition. I suspect often the business leader is ideally situated to instigate movement toward such a person’s natural path, and should feel a certain obligation to support such a transition.

Similarly, some people possess extreme talent in a multitude of pursuits. Business leaders should similarly be altruistic in the advice they provide to the likes of such people. Leaders should always ensure their advice is delivered in the best interests of the person regardless of any self-centred motivations. Quality leadership is as much about integrity and honesty as it is about winning – and (in any case) experience would indicate winners prefer an association to people of integrity!

And regardless of whether we’re talking about the multi-talented or those in pursuit of a lost cause, the fact is that movement needs to happen abruptly. Whilst many leaders may opt to avoid the situation of a poor performer and choose instead to alienate them in the hope they will leave of their own accord, the disharmony created through such a strategy is frequently so great that it infiltrates into other facets of the business. Business leaders must confront all indicators of poor performance quickly and effectively. They must first locate the poor performer within the hierarchy of their business so as to immediately identify the most appropriate person with whom the team member must build a relationship. Second, they must ensure the poor performer is fully aware of their position requirements, and set about assisting them in prioritising work focuses for greatest value. Third, the leader must ensure a more convivial environment of communication exists so as to ensure any indicators of discontent and uncertainty are immediately identified. Finally, true success for any leader may lie in the awareness to recognize a lost cause and the empathy to guide others into alternative possibilities sooner rather than later.


Craig holds a Masters degree from the University of Western Australia. He has been Performance Coach to a large number of New Zealand athletes, including the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympic Games team. He was the inaugural director of the New Zealand Squash Institute, and has been Performance Coach to national champions, world champions and world record holders. He was Performance Coach to the New Zealand Kiwis rugby league team throughout the team’s successful 2005 and 2006 tri-series of rug...

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