Leadership

What causes a great performer to go sour?


A lot - maybe most - of my work for companies has to do with "remedial" coaching. In HR-speak, this translates to something like, " He/she was really good for a while; but now they just aren't performing at the level we need. If they can't get back in the game, we probably won't be able to keep them. We want you to help them to get re-engaged."

Occasionally, I am also asked to work with stellar performers to help them move up the ladder more quickly. But those situations are few and far between. I think this simple fact says a lot about most organizations and their management styles. And what it says is important.....

See if this next sound bite sounds familiar - you may have had it said to you; or you may have said it to a member of your own team:

" (Insert name here), you're doing a great job! We're very impressed with the way you get things done; and to show you that we think you've got real potential, we're going to let you take over a bigger responsibility. You've shown us you have the skill, talent and dedication to move forward in this organization and we like that. So, here you go - more people working under you (or more job scope, or more dollars in a bigger budget, or more whatever). We're going to keep an eye on you (insert name again) and if you perform like we think you're gonna; we'll keep giving you more responsibility. Everyone will see that you are a key player."

In most cases, the person who was given this new extra responsibility is very happy with the verbal pat on the head and moves into her or his new role with great enthusiasm.

Often, they continue to excel and the boss sees this. And then to show appreciation, the boss gives the high performing person another level of responsibility or a promotion. And both sides feel good again. But this is where things may get a little sour.

Some people refer to what happens next as The Peter Principle in action. If you're not familiar with the term it's from Dr. Laurence Peter, who said back in 1968 that "..every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence." Peter intended it to explain the upward, downward, and lateral movement of personnel within a hierarchically organized system of ranks. You have probably seen this occur - may have had it in your own career. This is when the HR department calls on a success coach to help "fix" the situation.

I don't think Peter's concept was exactly sound however because it contends that the team player was responsible for the poor outcome. I believe that the manager is the one responsible for the situation when the team member started to fail.

Many managers do this when they should do precisely the opposite. They take their great players and burden them, little by little, until they finally go sour. They use the great ones to offset the weaknesses of other team members, picking up more work while the slackers or incompetents get away with doing less. Often what occurs is that the great ones end up working 10 or 12-hour days and the weak links in the chain get to work 8 or 9 hours because they have less to do.

Inadvertently, the stars get penalized for being stars!

What to do?

1. Re-think your use of talent. When you've got a great one under you; use them to help you run a better group.

2. Rather than job enlargement - go for job enrichment. Give them juicy-but-challenging special projects that will help develop new skills.

3. Or let them have the luxury of time to help you by studying and examining processes or tasks to determine how they can be improved.

4. Let them see that you value them by treating them special. They'll perform with continually renewed enthusiasm which helps make you shine at the same time.

5. And when they need some help that you or others can't provide, bring in others from the organization or even outsiders to mentor and coach them to help them grow even more quickly.

Your organization will gain a reputation as a place where people want to work. You will attract and retain the best available.

john

Leadership Coach

About

John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

34 comments
SQL_Joe
SQL_Joe

Boy don't I know it! I get the projects that are in flaming death spirals (and thus nobody wants) because I can get results. This of course, means I am too busy to get the shiny, new technology and very interesting projects which end up going to more junior personnel.

Dave Lathrop
Dave Lathrop

The Peter Principal actually states that employees tend to rise to their "level of PERCEIVED incompetence". Perception is the key to many of the problems that are explained by Tom's principal. For example: "A cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind." [But then what does an empty desk signify?] If this is how a manager views the work environment, anyone who has lots of work on their desk (i.e., multitasking lots of work) is incompetent while someone who pushes all work off on others appears competent and in control of their workload. Unfair but true. The great performers run into two other problems with this. They will be assigned more work until they reach their perceived limits, not their actual sustainable limits. Since great performers tend to handle stress well and don't show it, managers don't recognize when they are reaching the breaking or souring point. So the work just keeps piling up. In many organizations, managers look down on technical people as lacking in people and management skills. This may mean that "lead technician" is the highest you can reach because you are automatically pre-judged as incompetent for management positions. [Often this is visible because people in management positions are assumed to be competent managers even when they aren't.] Unfortunately, the burden of creating the "proper perception" of oneself is left on the individual. So don't be afraid to talk and "let them see you sweat" (a little) so they at least know you're working hard. But Tom Peters was telling managers they should be aware of how their perceptions impact their decisions too.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

Maybe you'll grow another star, maybe you won't...but the star will have work they can pass off to someone they trust and believe they can do quality work. On the flip side, REMOVE THE DEAD WOOD. Stars get upset when the deadwood stays around, but the star keeps on getting more and more work to take up the slack.

Reuban
Reuban

Yes, job enrichment is good but the stars would also prefer job enlargement to build on that as well as coaching to succeed in the new responsibilities. Without enlargement, enrichment alone, will not make anyone grow quickly in accordance with the "principle"

ctfuller
ctfuller

I'm not satisfied with the "What to do?" portion of this article. So I made up my own. I am a boss and try my best to follow these simple set of rules. I just wish I had more power to excute them 100% of the time. 1. When you have good talent, reward them by giving them more responsibly; making sure they are adequately supplied with the tools necessary to accomplish their projects (more employees, software, hardware, time, and training). 2. Pay them what they deserve, not what's fair. Compliments, recognition and rewards are all good but their effects will quickly fade away. Be flexible with their time and surprise them with a go home early kind of day. 3. Make sure you are CLEAR on your expectations. Nothing is worse than guessing what your boss expects from you. They end up doing a mediocre job because it is better to be in the middle than too far to either side. Employees want clear directions even if there isn't any. 4. Discipline and be consistent with it. If you have a bad employee, remember that fairness has nothing to do with discipline and expectations. Get rid of the dead weight if they fail to meet expectations but give them an opportunity to improve.

hlhowell
hlhowell

Great performers like and stay with company's where they have an impact and where they can help the company accomplish more. When the company ignores or worse denigrates their input, the really great performers will move on, and eventually all the company has left is the slackers or the people that sent the company down a path that the great performers knew was wrong to begin with. This is a death knell for the organization. Regards, Les H

rebsteve
rebsteve

This describes my situation all too well. I've been at this company for 5+ years, and we were bought out last year by a large company. Each year, I've received the top raise and fallen into the highest rating when it comes to reviews, and each year I've been promised more responsibilities. After 2.5 years, I got promoted to Senior Engineer. It's been almost 3 years since then, and I have no chance for another promotion at this company. Management's too tight to get into, so I'm pretty much screwed. I think part of the problem is that when you're really good on a technical level, the company doesn't want you to move up and take you away from what you've done so well. The problem with that is that your best folks get so frustrated with being stagnant, that they go sour. With the purchase of the company, we've gone through an IT reorganization, putting us in silos and narrowing our scope of activities. The problem with this, on a personal level, is that all the fun projects that I worked on before we got bought will not fall into my new silo. I know that I'm not the only one frustrated with the situation, but we're in Michigan, so it's not like we have the choice of leaving for a different job. Management thinks they can fix it by offering more money, but that's not the issue. As a young person, I'm more interested in my career path than anything else and would take less money for a better opportunity. In addition, they've started outsourcing much of the IT work to India, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of many employees. I have no problem with the idea of outsourcing, if you go about it properly, and are honest with your employees about your intentions. It's very hard for me to figure out what to do next in order to a) move along on my career path, and b) reduce my frustration. One suggestion I'm going to try is going to a former manager who's still with the company and ask him to mentor me. This will allow me to focus on the proper areas to grow my career.

TooOldToRemember
TooOldToRemember

I agree with the previous posts, but one thing that I have found helps the stars performers is when management recognizes the weak links and does something about it. Yes, the high performers need to be recognized and rewarded (maybe something like additional training or something of their choosing), but the poor performers need to be managed as well. Most stars I have worked with or managed appreciated having someone on their team they trusted to take the work they handed off and actually complete it. You may never have a team of all stars, but that does not mean you should accept poor performers as inevitable and permanent.

dancer1117
dancer1117

We fought this battle all through my daughter's school years. In elementary school it was obvious she was bored and each teacher's response was always to give her more work, including, starting in first grade, tutoring other students (it was obvious she had inherited her dad's gift of teaching). We would ask for more enriching work instead of just more work, with so-so success depending on the teacher. In junior high she learned to hide her boredom better so she didn't get dumped on quite as much, although she still had teachers sending her students to tutor. BTW, she was also able to hide how much she hated tutoring kids that could not have cared less, so we didn't know we should put a stop to it. In high school she was able to take A.P. classes and that helped, but again, still tutoring. Finally, through a special program she was able to take her entire senior year of high school as a freshman at a local university. Finally, she wasn't bored any more! But she was so burned out with tutoring uncaring and ungrateful kids that she refused to have anything to do with teaching, no matter how many alternatives we showed her for using this wonderful gift. Sure wish we could have a do-over on this one!

Chaz Chance#
Chaz Chance#

The HR department where I currently work would have to have the term "career coach" explained to them. Seriously, though, I have often seen technical staff given management responsibility without any training, coaching or mentoring. This usually results in a drop in morale, a downturn in productivity, and loss of both customers and revenue.

Nehpets
Nehpets

Actually you have it wrong. Peter intended the principle to indicate to management that the management processes were wrong. What you are claiming as "what managers should do.." is one of the key concepts behind Peter's work. The rest of what you suggest is not new, unfortunately management just doesn't seem to "get" the message. But lets not stop telling it!!!

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

But you have to implement them right. For instance, #2; "Give them juicy-but-challenging special projects that will help develop new skills." I saw that implemented once where the Star worker got just that, the most difficult, challenging projects we had. But for some reason the boss didn't take it into account when he calculated our job performance figures for review. The "Star" got lower numbers because he completed less projects. One more observation, most people can't keep up a sustained "max" effort. Everybody needs some slow/off time even on the job.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

Yup, it's aways fun to be the fixer....but when the project is too deep into it's death spiral, and you can't save it...who gets blamed? You... Good times....good times.

bbenda
bbenda

As a PM, I've got 13 projects... half of which are "assigned" to business staff... so I do all the work, they get all the credit as the PM. Then, I have to mentor a fellow manager in PM, and train the whole damn agency in PM.. .all on top of the 13 projects... Then I get told that I really don't have that much work and I am underperforming. My shining light is down to just a periodic flicker!

andy.nelson
andy.nelson

I think you've hit the nail on the head - mentoring makes the "star" feel valued in a way that a raise or days off don't, ie it makes them feel able to share their skills and experiences and hopefully nurture someone else with the same work ethic and ability. Asfor removing dead wood - totally agree with you there!

ghlbeyerlein
ghlbeyerlein

I don't have the authority to change #2 on my contract, but 1, 3 & 4 sound just about dead-on for my team. I can recommend salary increases, but that's not my final call. Nice post.

ManiacMan
ManiacMan

I can't begin to tell you how many bosses increase the workload and/or responsibilities of their subordinates and fail horribly in the basic and fundamental needs of supplying their subordinates with the appropriate tools and training for the additional responsibilities and workloads. I used to be an employee before I started consulting and have been a victim of such hard nosed and stingy managers who wouldn't spend a dime on training. They expected me and a bunch of other IT guys to simply read a book on something completely new to us and become experts within a few days. Yes, some people can learn quickly from books, but I am more of a visual learning, as I need to see it done and do it myself to fully grasp something. Nevertheless, my and others performance reviews were adversely affected by this and morale went down the tubes quickly. I left first, then the rest of the team followed. Now I don't mind learning new things and taking on a challenge, but to be thrown into unfamiliar territory without formal training or knowledge is asking for trouble, especially where I am concerned and when others naively assume I am an expert in everything.

Shellbot
Shellbot

this sounds like the place i am leaving on friday..

too_old
too_old

or lack thereof...top performers are usually considered those with great personalities, have 'personal relationships' with the manager (one of the team actually hires the manager's wife to do her housecleaning), goes along with unethical behaviour...oh did you mean the ones that actually do the work...well their heads are down doing the work and not always aware it is not the criteria for being the top performer

kingttx
kingttx

I don't know your situation but I'll attempt to comment anyway. Please take it with a grain of salt. Unless you are in a special situation, being early in your career means you can be flexible and try different positions or even different companies without hurting your resume. Just don't bounce around too much - perhaps a new job every other year is decent. The reason is, a different company will give you different opportunities and challenges to learn new stuff. There is a postulate that leaving your current company and working for a different one for a while will give you leverage for a significant pay increase if/when you return to the original company. Depending on the hiring manager, the more SOLID experience you have (hence, don't bounce around from job to job too much) the better chance you'll have either finding that niche you want or the potential for advancement. My own gut reaction to your situation would be to update your resume and test the waters on a new job. Good luck!

Tell It Like I See It
Tell It Like I See It

More than once I was in a situation where things were awful. I ended up leaving each of these groups. In at least one case, I feel that the poor performer was actually the manager. Despite repeated status reports that there's a problem with regards to things, this manager didn't do squat. Unfortunately, this manager was beloved by his less-than-competent VP supervisor and above that nobody cared what this manager did. So, what do you do then?

OntheEdge
OntheEdge

What a concept, stop making the star performers pull the dead weight... As someone who has been in such a position (more than once), I would have to say that there would be nothing more satisfying than to make those who continually under achive start NOW or hit the road.

wlcjprice
wlcjprice

I work with a star performer. We both worked together at a prior job and we both accepted this new job (I questioned whether I wanted to continue to work with him). I've always been below him at the prior position and it's happening again here where he got all the great juicy stuff and I've requested the challenges numerous times. It's extremely frustrating to watch the star performers get the challenges, more involvement, are the go-to's for questions, while the less stared sit in the winds watching, wishing and requesting. No matter how much the less star'd try, the star's always stand above. So maybe the less star'd are the way they are because of the star'd. Give the less a chance to prove themselves could result in more star's and less burned-out star'd.

Sigman
Sigman

Two employee of the year awards in four years (in a non-IT industry), unquestioning and eventually unlimited overtime, always there when it hit the fan for as long as needed, repeatedly let down by coworkers even when prearranged, taking back work that had been transferred to coworkers who wouldn't even try (what I eventually grew to call the boomerang effect because it happened so often); all while my regular responsibilities grew by two orders of mangnitude and developing a staff that had the highest morale in the department for three years running... Hell yeah, I finally went sour. Management is never held accountable for bad decisions or failure to hold employees accountable. Those damn golden handcuffs...

Tell It Like I See It
Tell It Like I See It

I've seen #2 implemented badly as well. The manager seemingly "got confused" about the difference between challenging and impossible. As a result, the star got fed up and left. The unofficial reason I heard was basically "managerial incompetence". I also agree that a sustained "max" effort is unsustainable. Someplace I read that some of the more effective places to work actually prefer target a constant 80% rather than risk spiking beyond 100%. An observation I'll add is that the managers need to consider the star's interests. If the star simply isn't interested in certain things, you don't want to be pushing them in that direction. For example, if a star isn't interested in process and procedure, then #3 (improving processes and procedures) probably won't do anything other than annoy them.

Canuckster
Canuckster

Reward the good ones with perks and don't hinder them with career killers.

$dunk$
$dunk$

[i]I think you've hit the nail on the head - mentoring makes the "star" feel valued in a way that a raise or days off don't[/i] While it is a bit of an ego boost to be able to mentor someone, if your skills are not rewarded with good raises and assignments then a person's attitude changes pretty quickly. Why should they go out of their way to make the extra effort to train someone (most likely in addition to their other duties) when it is not rewarded by the company?

ManiacMan
ManiacMan

Proxy Errors are causing this.

ManiacMan
ManiacMan

My direct manager was protected by the egomaniac IT director and regardless of how crappy of a manager he was, the IT director would always cover this guy's arse and would somehow twist things around and make it the fault of the subordinates, such as the engineers, as I was, and the administrators, who I supported. The fact that my manager refused to address serious issues within the department and irritating work habits of other employees, especially one guy who loved to blast every conversation he had on speakerphone, truly showed that he wasn't cut out for the job he had. If this isn't a great example of the Peter Principle, I'd like see a better example.

andy.nelson
andy.nelson

Having been in this position myself many times over the years, both on technical roles and business development & managerial levels, I totally agree - the frustration that comes from working flat out (because you have high standards and take pride in your work) while someone else just does the bare minimum is unbelievable...

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

While money is nice, I prefer work where I'm rewarded well, because typically I'm already paid well.

$dunk$
$dunk$

It's not what you do or what you know that matters. It's what you can make your manager think you did. That's why management is looked down upon so much by truly gifted technical people because the one's who get promoted (after the initial entry level spots) are seldom good performers. They are usually terrific BS'ers with at best mediocre ability to do real work. While the really good technical people are too busy fighting fires caused by their mediocre peers, the mediocre people have plenty of time to scheme their way into their manager's good graces and take credit where none was deserved.

too_old
too_old

I have seen this so many times. I have often thought how stupid I was/am to see to the work that needed to be done was done while the ones who was suppose to be helping did what they wanted to do and complained to the manager about how me being a bully and making them feel stupid when I would check what work they did do and returned it to them because it was not right. Also the slackers will also make sure they get the credit for work they did not do. I really do feel that so many people are just a victim of their own fear and will do anything to keep their jobs no matter who it is they hurt except work. An example: I was told to work with a less senior person on a special project. She exclaimed while looking at some code, 'this appears to be be calling itself', I just replied 'yes, it has to be recursive to obtain the data needed'. How does someone get to a systems analyst job without knowing what recursive means or how it is implemented or why it is sometimes needed? I did not say that to her but she called in the next day to the manager crying that she was so upset by me being mean and making her feel stupid she just could not come to work. It just happened to be a Friday.

rebsteve
rebsteve

What's really sad is that at my current company, those who have not done their job have gotten promoted. We have one engineer who never picked up on any of the stuff he was supposed to work on, and only worked on what he wanted to. Lo and behold in the reorganization he ended up getting the choice of where he wanted to end up.