One of the most irritating things you can ask of an employee—no matter what his or her title—is to cover for a peer who is just not getting the job done. No matter how many truisms you talk about teamwork, the bottom line is that everyone at some point is going to wonder, “Why should I have to do my job if so-and-so doesn’t?” It’s just human nature; there’s no way around it.
Obviously, as a responsible manager, you’re going to put problem employees on some kind of performance improvement plan, but such plans take time to unfold and can be complicated by a slew of variables that, for good reason, you can’t share with other team members. This situation can create hard feelings, particularly on the part of those team leaders who are pulling an extra load while their coworker’s performance issues are being addressed.
A recent lunch conversation I had with Jeff Davis, an old-school TechRepublic columnist and colleague of mine for about seven years now, drove home the point that when it comes to this kind of tough situation, your best employees can ultimately be your greatest risk. Jeff—who is nothing if not passionate about his work—described to me a previous work experience where he started off trying to help out a fellow employee but ultimately found himself acting as a crutch for his manager, whom he felt wouldn’t aggressively address key issues. Ultimately, this turn of events really hacked Jeff off.
When Jeff asked me how I would have dealt with the issue, I shared one of my hardest-learned pearls of managerial wisdom: Find an acceptable point of failure, and then let it happen.
I know that this goes against the grain of every perfectionist manager, and I’d throw myself into that group. But letting a squeaky wheel squeak loudly enough that it gets oiled is an essential skill as you deal with the harsh realities of the competitive workplace. Face it: All organizations have teams that aren’t meeting their goals, and this dynamic escalates in proportion with your company’s size. And the most dysfunctional teams are always going to get the lion’s share of the company’s attention and remedial resources. Again, that’s just the way it is.
If you go to your boss and describe a problematic team situation, one of the first questions you are likely to hear is, “What goal is this situation keeping you from meeting?” If your answer is “none,” then you don’t really have a problem—that is, until a key player gets so frustrated with rewriting buggy scripts that he or she finds another job.
The key to weathering these little crises is to ensure your team’s critical and key functions are covered, then identify projects and deliverables that can slip. Sure, if your company’s site goes down, your Ops team has to respond at superhuman speed; there’s no excuse for failure there. But if your e-mail admins are running some cleanup on a server that’s at 80 percent capacity, let the job slide a couple of weeks, and let your boss know why you had to do it.
This kind of acceptable failure lets you apply a metric to your problem and adds a level of credibility to whatever efforts you are undertaking with your problem employee.
Keep an eye out for your best guys too
For those of you out there who are appalled at the notion of actually letting something fail by design, let me tell you that your best performers are exactly the same way. They would much rather put in 10 extra hours a week than to let a deadline slip—at least for a while. But there’s a thin line between hero and martyr, and eventually perfectionist employees will wear themselves to a frazzle in their efforts to cover for a lagging peer.
Make time to check on the status of employees who you are asking to pull extra duties, and make sure you set unmistakably clear expectations on what they need to accomplish. If a project comes into their hands in such bad shape that it will take all night to clean up, make sure they know you expect them to go home at a reasonable hour and return to the project tomorrow. (By this point, you should have shifted any truly mission-critical functions away from your personnel problem.)
Don’t think that just because your team leaders don’t complain they aren’t irked at having to cover for another employee. I’ve found that team members are usually happy to chip in on a big project where the extra work has a clear business upside; cleaning up someone else’s mess gets personal and ugly in a hurry. The worst meltdowns I have ever seen have been by good employees who have lost their perspective and think the company expects them to do more than what is reasonable, while mediocre or poor employees seemingly bob along untouched.
The ugly truth
I would not have given this advice six years ago. But time and tough experience have taught me that a company’s long-term investment in key players and outstanding performers is more important than the short-term thrill of a spotless project log. In time, a team that’s held together by three-quarters of its members pulling 100 percent of the weight is going to erode in a flood of hurt feelings and basic workplace stress. And to your best employees, you are going to look like an ineffectual dolt who is more worried about extra team politics than fixing their problems.
So the next time you find yourself working through performance issues with an employee, consider how vital a lapsing function is before asking another team member to pick up the slack. Maybe this particular function can slide until you get your personnel problem resolved.