Sometimes my best insights come from hearing something I already know stated slightly differently by someone new. I had one of those moments this morning.
While reading Peak by Chip Conley I came across a simple innocuous sentence:
“The reality is there are typically three kinds of employees: the superstars, the silent majority, and the weak links…you want to make sure you have twice as many superstars as weak links because the silent majority will gravitate to what’s dominant.” p.136
This statement is not a new idea for me. For years I have used a bell curve to illustrate how to create an ethical culture. The key point is that the majority of employees are looking for leadership to determine how to behave at work.
What piqued my interest in Mr. Conley’s quote is the ratio: two top performers are needed to overcome the influence of each underperformer. For some reason, I had never contemplated a specific ratio before. I have thought about balancing the underperformer’s influence, but not what counterbalance is required to overcome it and keep it from becoming an undertow that drags all the average performers down and chases the star performers out.
The two to one ratio makes sense. I have found that for some bizarre reason underperformers tend to have strong personalities. In general, they want to lead and influence the individuals around them. Their goal in life seems to be to convert everyone to be just like them and join their world where “life sucks.” They want to prove to all the other emloyees that it’s not just them, that in fact the company they work for sucks also and that’s why their life sucks.
On the other hand, average performers or silent majority tend to be followers. They will scan their environment to see who is the most influential and then they follow. Inevitably, they will also modify their behavior to be more like those whom they follow.
In general, underperformers have 3 reasons why they are on the bottom of the barrel. They lack
2. Attitude, or
3. Ability and attitude.
Here is the fact: lack of ability is much easier to overcome than attitude. Though it is occasionally possible to overcome attitude issues, it takes excessive time and energy and is rarely successful. When you encounter the double whammy, the bad attitude must be addressed before they will be willing and able to improve their abilities.
I saw these forces in action at a client’s company. They had to terminate an employee I’ll call Sally. Sally’s base problem was one of ability. She was hired years ago and as the company grew they incorporated more technology and Sally was not able to keep up. In many ways, her abilities were marginal when she was hired and as the company grew her abilities did not keep pace. And unfortunately, this company did not have the resources to work one-on-one with her to coach her to the next level.
Enter now an underperforming weak link we’ll call Marge. Marge has a bad attitude. It was apparent early on that Marge did not have the skills needed for the position and that she had in fact exaggerated wildly during her interview about her actual skills. Rather than quickly terminate her services, the company invested time and money into training Marge on what she said she already knew how to do. Marge would pretend to learn. But the attitude thing kept tripping her up. It was her habit to blame others. Further, she constantly complained that she was given more work than she had time to complete.
Marge has a strong personality and over time she infected both Sally, the person who was recently fired, and another administrative person who is in the silent majority. This company didn’t have the two to one ratio. Worse they had a zero to one ratio. There was no one in the administrative area to lead the two averages.
So, now my client is faced with having terminated one employee, the likelihood of terminating a second, and the hope that they will be successful in rehabilitating a third.
The moral of the story is: Look at your team. How many stars and underperformers do you have? What is their ratio? Who is leading the show? If it’s the underperformers, I strongly recommend you get in there and shake things up now. That may mean giving the underperformers some written warnings. It may mean firing one or two that have already received numerous warnings.
Just don’t forget, it also means devoting time and energy to rewarding the stars and developing and guiding the average performers. The silent majority may be latent stars that just need the right leadership to show them the way.