Accelerate Your Performance

20: Low Performers: Who Are They?

April 22, 2019 Studer Education Season 1 Episode 20
Accelerate Your Performance
20: Low Performers: Who Are They?
Accelerate Your Performance
20: Low Performers: Who Are They?
Apr 22, 2019 Season 1 Episode 20
Studer Education

Low performers take up the majority of our time as leaders and cause their better performing coworkers stress. Today we address the types of low performing behaviors and what happens if we ignore them.   

This episode addresses questions, such as: 

  • How do we enable low performers? 
  • What are low performer behaviors?  
  • What about mean employees?  

Low Performers: Who Are They? is the fifth episode in a series describing the performance curve and performance conversations, beginning with Ep. #16 High Performers: Who Are They?. 

Recommended Tool: Differentiating Staff: Leadership Challenge 

Recommended Learning: Low Performer Conversation 


Show Notes Transcript

Low performers take up the majority of our time as leaders and cause their better performing coworkers stress. Today we address the types of low performing behaviors and what happens if we ignore them.   

This episode addresses questions, such as: 

  • How do we enable low performers? 
  • What are low performer behaviors?  
  • What about mean employees?  

Low Performers: Who Are They? is the fifth episode in a series describing the performance curve and performance conversations, beginning with Ep. #16 High Performers: Who Are They?. 

Recommended Tool: Differentiating Staff: Leadership Challenge 

Recommended Learning: Low Performer Conversation 


Thank you for joining today’s Accelerate Your Performance Podcast. And thank you for having a desire to be your best at  work and helping your organization achieve success. This podcast focuses on tactical actions to improve workplace culture and these tactics align to our Nine Principles® for Organizational Excellence.  


Today, we’ll focus on “What is a low performer?”


People can’t wait to get to this topic.  In our podcast series on the performance curve, I’ve started with 80% of the people in our organization, high and middle performers. Usually, people ask, when are we going to address low performers?  Why do they ask this question? Because unfortunately we spend 80% of our time on this 10% of the workforce. We feel this stress and discomfort and so does the other 90% of the workforce. 


In prior episodes we’ve focused on 80% of our employees in the middle and the high end of the performance curve. In this episode we focus on the bottom 20% (10% are low, middle performers and 10% are low performers). 


Remember, on the performance curve about  30% of our employees are high performers, and 50% middle to middle high performers. Here’s the great news. When we focus the majority of our efforts on the 80%, the 10% who are still in the middle (although on the low end of the middle) tend to change their behaviors to move up the curve.  The other 10% at the lowest part of the curve may or may not change their behavior. 


Why do the lower middle performers move up? They tend to watch what is occurring around them within the organization and may come along if low performance is addressed and middle and high performers continue to receive coaching and recognition as they move up.  The low middles are on the fence waiting to see what occurs.  And, they tend to want to join the favorable side. When they see that negative behaviors are being addressed, they get it.  They see it’s a new day. Here’s the catch - Until they trust the new day, they continue to look for a misstep by leaders. 


The lowest 10% cause us the greatest issues. Sometimes we provide opportunities for them to transform.  If low performers change their behaviors to the positive we have a win, win, win situation - our team wins, the low performer wins, and our organization wins.  It’s worth acting to gain these wins. However, it’s not worth taking time away from the other 90% to get this win. 


So, what if a low performer does NOT change?


Let’s take this situation. One of our employees has a performance plan. We’ve met with him every week over a 60 to 90- day time period and we’ve not seen much improvement – maybe moments of change that shift back into the same behavior or worse. Here’s the question I ask myself and others when in this situation. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being – absolutely, you believe the individual is going to change his behavior to move forward (up the curve)? If the answer is somewhere between 9 to 10, there’s still a good chance.  If the answer is 7 or 8, it’s probably worth giving a LITTLE more time. If the answer is, 6 or below, we have to take stronger action and begin to consider termination.  


I realize this is not scientific.  It’s worked for me. Of course, there’s much more that goes into a termination decision.  This is a way we can check ourselves on what we sense after many conversations and improvement actions. As long as leaders are following a focused and thorough process, I also trust their instincts. This especially holds true with experienced leaders. 


Experienced leaders can depend on a combination of explicit knowledge (facts) and tacit knowledge (experiences and insights) to make good decisions.  More about ways to make decisions in a future Accelerate Your Performance episode. 


Here’s why we do this check.  I can ask people in an audience to think about the last time they terminated someone. I ask them to raise their hand if they think they made the decision too quickly.  No hands are raised.  Most of us want a win, win, win. And, we do everything humanly possible to achieve that.  When we can’t get there, it’s a very difficult decision for us. 


Most of us in leadership positions have lived in the middle to high performing range most of our lives.  We see the world through that view, which is very different from how low performers view the world. 


Low performers can be tricky.  Here’s what I’ve discovered as I’ve tried to understand why people act in the way they do.  After all, people choose to act a certain way.  In the eyes of the low performer, it’s someone else’s fault.  When in reality the way they behave is an individual choice. 


Remember, when we speak about performance along the performance curve, we’ve been focusing on a lack of strong will – not aligning behaviors to values and not having fire in the belly. I continue with that theme as I speak about low performance issues.  


On a side note, at times, we have someone with a great attitude who does not have the skills to do the job.  We have to address the performance issue. We can either align the individual’s skills to a new job or initiate a performance plan. We cannot allow someone to be part of a team without necessary skills. 


In most instances,  even when someone does not have the skills, the underlying problem is will.  People simply do not have the drive to put in the effort to do what it takes to learn and enhance their skills. 


Let’s take a deeper view into varying types of low performing behaviors. 


When I think about the low performance issues I’ve encountered as I’ve work with client organizations and my own over the years, I’ve found at least three different situations. 


First, some low performers have lost their desire and passion and can’t find a way to rekindle the necessary energy to contribute to the team to achieve positive results. Personally, this is the most difficult situation for me as leader. 

 I don’t know about you, but I like to enable people to be successful. When people are transitioned from the organization, I feel like I’ve failed when someone on my team is not able to continue with our team. Either I failed at the hiring phase, the onboarding phase, or creating a workplace environment where people can be successful.  Sometimes, we give people a chance. They take a chance on us, and we take a chance on them.  Or, someone comes to us with great skills and experience that we believe will transfer to our organization. Down the road we find that not to be the case for various reasons. 


Hiring the right people is one of the most difficult and important things we do.  We’ll focus on this topic in a later episode.  


So, when we hire someone we build a workplace that enables someone to be successful. And they make choices along the way. I’m not sure about you, but I’ve learned difficult lessons in life. Here’s one. There’s a fine line between enabling people to have opportunities and being an enabler or permitting someone to persist with destructive behavior.  These enabler behaviors include 

·     excusing negative behavior

·     rationalizing why the negative behavior is occurring  

·     ignoring the behavior to avoid the consequences of such behavior.


Let’s view a couple of examples. See if these seem familiar.


Dave continues to turn in work late and does not tell anyone on the team that he’s unable to meet the deadlines.  The work he turns in is good work. He says he has too much to do and can’t get everything completed on time. Other teammates have to pick up his workload.  As Dave’s leader, I don’t want to push him too much since he is getting something to us. If we push him, he might do a mediocre job, or act out in a negative way. I excuse Dave’s behavior by saying - that’s just the way Dave is.  


·     Here’s what my actions tell others on the team  – The team needs to be okay with the behavior because of the work quality and they can pick up the slack. Ugh!


What about this situation – Samantha’s had a lot going on in her life.  When I worked with her last year, she was a great leader.  People admired her, she was highly proactive, energized, and focused.  For the past year, Samantha has been going through a phase where she’s not focused on leading her team and working with clients.  As Samantha’s leader, I don’t address her behaviors and say to myself that she will get better once her life settles down. 


·     Here’s what my actions tell others on the team   – It’s okay for Samantha to underperform since she is going through life circumstances. Everyone can adjust to compensate for her underperformance. 


My actions in these two cases show the team that behaviors are being excused and rationalized. That’s difficult for team members to take. 


One other negative behavior our team members deal with is when leaders ignore a low performing behavior.


One of the most common things we do as leaders and as peers is ignore a negative behavior.  We think it will go away if we ignore it. We say to ourselves – Jay had a bad moment. It will not happen again. And guess what, most of the time the behavior resurfaces.  It takes energy to address negative behaviors, and sometimes we don’t want to take the time or expend the energy to do so. 


All three situations (excusing, rationalizing and ignoring) make us enablers of low performing behaviors. To be an excellent organization, we can’t be enablers.


We don’t know why people make choices to perform at the low end of the performance curve. 

·     Some low performers have lost their desire and passion and can’t find a way to rekindle the necessary energy to contribute to the team to achieve positive results. 


·     Sometimes low performance stems from where people are in life, their energy levels, and their ability to have the strong will needed to be part of a team.


·     And, sometimes people just like to live with negativity. 


And at other times, we run into low performers who have lived  a low performing lifestyle their entire life – kindergarten to high school, first job, second job, in marriages. When I’ve encountered these low performers, I feel like they’ve created a profession out of being a low performer.  


Sometimes we hire them and realize we’ve made a big mistake. Other times, we inherit them when we assume a new role. As a leader, we must address the low performing behaviors.  And, we usually get remarks like, “I’ve been working this way for years and it’s not been a problem.” And, we say, “it may have been accepted then. This is now. The behavior does not align with our standards and will not be tolerated.”  In other words, it’s okay for leaders to say it is a new day and here are the expectations.


I am fortunate to work with a high performing team. Here’s what I’ve learned as we’ve built our team. When most of the team consists of high performers, low performers stick out like a sore thumb. A high performing team doesn’t allow a leader to get away with being an enabler for low performers.  My team makes me a better leader.  


Of course, the best outcome is when negative behaviors turn the corner. Sometimes this occurs because it’s the first time an individual has faced consequences for continuing the negativity.  The impact could be life changing for a low performer choosing to change.  As a leader, we could be a true difference-maker for someone.


Gosh - We want low performers to change their ways and become a meaningful member of the team, don’t we? There are times when this occurs and times when it does not. 


Some of the best employees and leaders are reformed low performers. In an earlier podcast episode, I introduced Mary Jo, a reformed low performing leader and principal of an elementary school. We’ll talk about examples of reformed low performers in future episodes. I’ve got some great stories and examples we can learn from. 


Before I leave the low performing behavior topic, I want to briefly address a severe low performing behavior – people who are mean.


Unfortunately, some people are intentionally disruptive and mean.  Research over the years tells us that people are mean to others to feel better about themselves. And, we’ve heard the expression that misery loves company.  Research also tells us  aggression tends to come from low self-esteem. When people  insult or criticize someone else, it could be reflective of how they feel about themselves rather than how they feel about that person.  This insecurity drives much of the cruelty in our world. We see it in our schools, communities and at our workplaces. 


As a leader, we have to address this type of behavior in our workplace. Here are the first two rules of thumb when hitting this situation head on. First, as difficult as it is, we can’t take the mean behavior personally. And, second, we can’t stoop to the level of the person exhibiting the mean behaviors. 


We need to act fast when the low performing behaviors are at this level.  And, if you are like me, this is where I enlist help from my HR colleagues and others who have expertise with these types of situations. I realize there are varying levels of meanness.  If someone is being mean to you, the feeling is terrible and frightening.   The worst feeling in the world is when we have been in situations when people have made fun of us, laughed at us with pleasure, and criticized us as a way to control a situation.  We have to create safe places for people to work. There is no tolerance for this type of behavior in the workplace.


In summary, most of us live somewhere on the 80% of the performance curve. Sometimes we visit low performance and have to find our way back. And, if we’re honest, we’ve probably had to reform some of our own negative behaviors throughout life. I know I have.  


I’ve NOT always communicated by being forthright – going straight to the point.  My tendency is to soften a message, compromise, and negotiate so that everyone can be on a winning side. That’s not necessarily a bad trait when used appropriately.   On the other hand, this behavior can be misleading when a situation calls for clear and direct communication. Sharing bad news is difficult. 


When I communicate in a way that takes the pressure off of me but does not send an honest message to someone else, I’m probably off target. And, if I know this, I can stop myself from communicating in this way.  It’s a conscious decision I have to make. I have to slow down and think about how I communicate the right message. 


Here’s my message to leaders. Being a better leader means being a better person. And being a better person means changing our low performing behaviors so that we live in the high performing part of the curve. 


About 15 years ago, I made a significant change in my life.  Certain things occurred that helped me make a deeper commitment in life to be a better person. 

·     I was a year past 40.  What a blessing the years bring us. 

·     My grandfather who was living on the family 16-acre farm with me was dying of cancer. There are some great stories of our farm experiences together. He was fun. 

·     I connected with a companion who became my life partner.

·     And, Hurricane Ivan crashed into Pensacola, Florida on September 16th, 2004 and devasted our community and our farm.  Life would no longer be what it had been.  


At 40, I grew up in many ways.  I am thankful for all of these blessings. And, within a couple of years, I attended a conference in Pensacola, Florida called Take You and Your Organization to the Next Level (TYYO) where I heard Quint Studer speak for the first time.  It was the catalyst I needed to take a leap of faith and start the education division of Studer Group, Studer Education. Quint believed in me and gave me that chance. I am grateful to him. 


It was here in my life where I became a more reflective leader. I made a commitment to always be on an improvement journey as I work to move up the performance curve.


You have your own story. It’s important and shapes you as a co-worker and a leader.  


Let’s do  several things this week. 


  • Pay attention to low performing behaviors. What effect do these behaviors have on your team?
  •  Reflect about your own behaviors. When have you slipped into the low performance part of the curve? What effect did it have on others?
  •  What commitments can you make to focus on the 80% and stay there?


Once I made a commitment to change some of my ways, I made a lifelong commitment to be the best leader I can be.  And being my best means making strong commitments to the 80% to 90% of the people who can be their best at work.  And, sometimes making difficult decisions about low performers makes me a good leader. 


Here’s a quick assessment that keeps me honest. See if it is helpful to you.


Answer these two questions, 

·     On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you rate how well you and your organization live the values?


·     On a scale of 1 to 10, how well do you and the organization address performance issues?


Review your answers and change the score on the first question with this consideration. The first question cannot have a higher score than the second one.  


Why? When we ignore low performing behaviors, we tell the solid and high performing team members they have little value. The team members have to live with the low performers every day – the good performers have to take on more work and live with the negativity.  


As leaders, we owe it to our teams to do the right thing, even if it’s one of the most difficult things we have to do. Most leaders want to model and live the values of the organization and addressing low performers aligns to living our values. 



Thank you for tuning in to Accelerate Your Performance. I look forward to connecting with you on our next Podcast where we will continue our focus on individual performance along the performance curve and begin with performance coaching conversations align to high, middle and low performance.  Have a great week.