Make Sure You Chop the Dead Wood

This was the title of piece written by Geoff Colvin – and it has always been both important and relevant – even more so at the moment.

Here is the nub of Geoff’s piece:

Let’s be clear about the corrosive effects of avoiding this problem (underperforming employees). A recent survey from McKinsey is fairly chilling: Keeping poor performers means that development opportunities for promising employees get blocked, so those subordinates don’t get developed, productivity and morale fall, good performers leave the company, the company attracts fewer A players, and the whole miserable cycle keeps turning.

It gets worse. Employees know who the underperformers are. They know that the top executives know who they are. So every day the top team fails to address the problem, it’s sending a message: We’re not up to managing this outfit. Refusing to deal with underperformers not only makes your best employees unhappy, but it also makes them think the company is run by bozos.

Why don’t companies act? Some fear it would lower morale, which is nonsense. Mckinsey asked thousands of employees whether they’d be “delighted” if their company got rid of underperformers, and 59% strongly agreed – yet only 7% believed their companies were actually doing it. Executives often say they leave poor performers in place because they want the company to be seen as humane. That’s just more evasion of reality, of course. As Ed Michaels of McKinsey says, “The attitude is, “Let’s be fair to Charlie. He’s been here 21 years.” But we say, “What about the eight people who work for Charlie? You’re not being fair to them”.

A senior executive at Hewlett-Packard, put it like this: “I feel there is no greater disrespect you can do to a person than to let them hang out in a job where they are not respected by their peers, not viewed as successful, and probably losing their self-esteem. To do that under the guise of respect for people is, to me, ridiculous.”

Managing underperformers is a critical management function.  Having the courage to use feedback and coaching to improve performance to meet organisational standards (rather than turning a blind eye) and if necessary coaching staff as part of capability procedures is difficult work but it must be done – if mediocrity is to be kept at bay.

So consider this as a possible New Year’s Resolution for 2009.  Resolve to fire your greatest under performer.

Making this resolution will force you to address the under performance issues – because I know that you will not want to fire anyone.  It will force you to make 121s more powerful and honest, to give more feedback, to coach more, to praise more – to do everything in your power to make them such a great employee that you can’t fire them.

You might have another resolution that you didn’t see through – but you will have achieved something much more valuable – to have developed an underperformer into an over whelmer.

Are you up to it?

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