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Overcoming Marginal Performers


Clint Maun, CSP

Reflecting on the marginal performer in your operation, you are perplexed. You’ve tried to be fair, patient and understanding. You’ve counseled and attempted to motivate him. You’ve stressed quality, read books and attended seminars. Yet the marginal performer is still, well, marginal.

Forget those techniques. It is time for you to take charge.

Eighty-five percent of the time when I’m called in as a management consultant by a firm, it’s because the person who is in charge is not really in charge. The firm’s managers are not dealing properly with the most critical issue facing them - marginal performance by their employees.

Marginal performers fall into one of six categories. They are people who:
  1. Do just enough to get by. You or the organization may be letting them do it.
  2. Have capability beyond what they are performing. At one time, they may have performed up to their abilities, but have since slipped.
  3. Are coasting toward retirement. They have paid their dues and now think, "This place owes me."
  4. Perform at high peaks in some areas to compensate for valleys of performance in other areas.
  5. Accept marginal performance as the norm, because they’ve been allowed to get away with it. They deliberately slip one more notch to see how you will react.
  6. Are going through a temporary hassle in their personal lives - money, drugs, and family. Or they are stressed by learning a new job.

Coach, Don’t Counsel

Dismiss the idea right now that your job is to counsel the people who report to you. Your job is to get them help, not be the one to help.

Basketball coaches don’t go around saying, "How do you feel about your dribble? Have I done anything to hurt your dribble?" Instead, he or she tells the player what needs to be done to help the team win. Be a coach, not a counselor.

We’ve spent decades trying to become amateur psychologists. It doesn’t hurt if you understand something about the people reporting to you. But that is not a prerequisite for management. Just be sure you understand all the head games they play.

Here’s a fictitious example: Always absent from work on Fridays, Carol annoys other employees who do show up. Finally, you confront her. You try to establish rapport by asking about problems at home, and you hear more than you really want to know. Then you say, "We have a problem." Yet "we" don’t have a problem. Carol has the problem. You ask why she’s been absent. Bad question. She’ll give you an excuse just because you asked.

Instead, tell her about the problems caused by her absence. If you don’t believe her excuse, tell her so. Tell her what you expect in the future. Ask, "Is it a problem for you if we have to keep having this conversation or if it affects your raise or promotion?"

A smart person will respond "yes". A "Yes, but" answer means she still doesn’t own the problem. Until a person owns a problem, they will not fix it. This concept is also utilized in counseling programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

You cannot win head games. They violate three rules of American leadership:
  1. Honesty
  2. Consistency
  3. Specificity

Rules of American Leadership

People ask, "Isn’t being fair one of the rules of American leadership?" Fair is a word choking American management. People should have a level playing field. They should know what the rules are and where the goal post is. But they don’t get to play quarterback just because they’ve always wanted to be a football star.

When you are honest, consistent and specific, you are fair. On a scale of 1-10, you should strive to be:
  • Honest 8
  • Consistent 10
  • Specific 12
You are being too honest if you tell a person with a body odor problem, "You could knock a buzzard off his roost." On the other hand, "Smell something in this room?" is not honest enough. Leaders who are too specific micromanage their staff to death. It’s important to manage the results, not the process. You don’t care how they hit the ball as long as they get a hit.

But managers not specific enough who say, "I don’t like your attitude," could elicit a huh? from the employee. Instead point out specific instances and solutions to the problem. "This is what you said. I don’t want those words said to a customer again."

Conformance to Expectations

Quality products. Quality circles. Business is high on quality. But what exactly is quality? Quality is defined as "conformance to expectations". If your product or service meets the expectations of customers, it is a quality service.

Let’s say your friend bought a $100,000 Rolls Royce. It meets her expectations as a quality automobile. Another friend buys a $6,600 Yugo. It meets his expectations and so is defined as a quality purchase.

You do not compare car to car. You compare the car to the expectations of customers. If it conforms, it is a quality purchase. It is the same for the people who report to you.

Take the fictional Susan. She helps people, has a positive attitude, the respect of her co-workers and a 100% quality score. Then there is the fictional Mark in the same department. He performs his work when he feels like it, expects help but doesn’t offer it, says, "That’s not fair" a lot, and nobody wants to work with him.

Which one is meeting expectations set for the job? Is it fair and consistent to tell Susan what you like about her performance and to instruct Mark to improve his performance? The bottom line is you compare the person with the expectations of the job, not with each other. Expectations can be set with two words that have been the most misused in the last 30 years, "IF" and "THEN".

The way it should work is, "IF you show up for work, THEN we will give you a paycheck." Don’t switch them or you end up with "IF we give you a paycheck, THEN will you show up for work?"

A Motivation Quiz

Why do some people exceed expectations and others do not? They are often more motivated. You cannot motivate another person. Each human being can only motivate himself or herself. However, you can coach them to be motivated. How do you know if you have a motivated person working for you? Ask them:
  1. How are you doing on your job?
  2. How do you know that’s how you’re doing?
  3. When was the last time you messed up on the job?
  4. How do you know that’s how you messed up?

Motivated and unmotivated people will give similar answers to questions 1 and 3. Both questions are setup to the questions that follow. When asked, "How do you know that’s how you’re doing?" motivated people will have specific answers and a grasp of where they stand. An unmotivated person feels all is okay if they hear nothing. The only way they know they’re doing wrong is when somebody else tells them.

To the question, "How do you know that’s how you messed up," motivated people will answer something specific. Motivated people know exactly when what they’re doing is right or wrong. The unmotivated do not seem to understand unless someone tells them. Unmotivated people have no self-control system, and that is the basis of motivation. Define expectations for them, because a human being can’t be motivated if they don’t know what is expected. Then give your workers a way to measure their success.

Behavioral Types

There are three types of people who make mistakes:
  1. The Accidental Violator who says she is sorry and fixes the problem.
  2. Limit Testers. When you stop them from one violation, they try another. Accidental Violators will turn into Limit Testers if you do not do anything about the mistake when it first happens. But you can’t solve the problem until you get them to own the problem. Talk to them when they make a mistake. Then thank them when it is solved. Be sure to check that it is solved. You have to close the loop. Timing and follow-up are important. If an employee is absent Thursday, talk to him Friday. Don’t wait until the violation happens again.
  3. The Outlaw. Their activities are illegal - forging documents, lying, stealing, and verbally or physically abusing customers, sabotaging machinery. Do not spend time and money to rehabilitate these people. If you don’t get rid of them, they’ll bring in friends to work there. In one operation where we were called in, 50% of the employees were Outlaws, because nobody did anything about it when there were only one or two. Do one of two things: make is so tough legally they will leave or allow them to self-destruct. Of course, you should assist people with mental, drug or alcohol problems in getting help.

In Conclusion


It’s time to get tough, take charge, and deal with marginal performers. Coach, don’t counsel. Set expectations. Learn how to deal with the Accidental Violators, the Limit Testers and the Outlaws. And above all, learn the three important numbers in business management: 8 (honesty), 10 (consistency) and 12 (specificity).

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