Low Performers: Your Company's Secret Weapon
Discover the hidden value of improving your least performing employees through the explosive power of relationships.
Traditional Thinking vs. Reality
This is a no-brainer: you reward your high performers and you punish, or you don’t reward, low performers. Traditional management wisdom suggests that by applying this simple rule first, you treat people fairly, since those doing more get more, and second, you set the correct standards for all to follow. But does it really work that way?
A few years ago I joined a company’s marketing team to help with a challenging turnaround strategy. I remember distinctively the CEO suggesting, on my very first day at the office, that I should immediately dismiss and replace one of my subordinates. “He is an underachiever,” he told me. “You have ambitious targets to meet and you will need better people”. Although tempting, I did not apply his advice right away.
Working closely with this employee, and with the rest of the team, we quickly established a new vision, new ways of conducting our business, and new internal and external partnerships. We engaged fully, doing our best to achieve the new targets. At the same time, I was constantly trying to protect and care for the team, including him, while applying a very demanding plan for growth. Results proved us right. Not only that the turnaround was achieved. Within a year he was one of the company's most contributing and widely respected employees.
Unfortunately, the situation described above is not unique. People with huge potential often find themselves isolated without real opportunities to show what they are really capable of. Managers around the world are quick to label employees as “strong” or “weak” and to behave accordingly. Bonuses, promotions and benefits, as well as respect, likability and attention, are reserved for those performing well. Those under-performing are ignored, rarely given significant second chances and/or are shown the door.
Can it be otherwise?
Alphabet, the owner of Google, is the company with the highest market capitalization, overtaking Apple to become the most expensive publicly-traded corporation. The secret of success for the leading corporation of our times must surely be about focusing on top talent: get the best, make them even better, and don’t get stuck with low performers. We have all heard how tough Google’s selection criteria for new recruits are, haven’t we?
What we do not hear though is how Google treats its least performing people. Here is Laszlo Bock, Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, in his best-selling book Work Rules: Insights From Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead:
“What most organizations miss is that people in the bottom tail [of performance] represent the biggest opportunity to improve performance in your company…”.
In his book, he explains how Google identifies the bottom performers and how it takes extra care to make sure that they have active support to improve. Instead of getting into a “shape up or ship out”, as he calls it, conversation, Google has designed interventional activities to understand the situation better and to create the right environment for those employees to start contributing more.
Research from Harvard Business School quoted in his book shows that high achievers usually experience a drop in performance when changing jobs. This happens because success in the workplace depends a lot on co-workers, the corporate culture, resources and personal reputation in the office. Our job as managers and leaders is to create the right circumstances, the right mix of elements for people to remain or to become, in the case of low performers, high achievers.
Dismissing low performers without sincere and careful efforts to improve is both costly and discouraging. Costly, because you have already spent money to hire, train, integrate and manage them. Discouraging, because it inevitably inserts fear into the hearts of all employees. What if, due to unseen circumstances, I too find myself at the bottom end of the performance list? Am I doomed? He concludes:
“This cycle of investing in the bottom tail of the distribution means your teams improve… a lot. People either improve dramatically or they leave and succeed elsewhere”.
Major companies will be quick to state that they too have processes for identifying low performers and for doing something about it. Are they as committed as Google though? Such processes are usually stigmatizing for the underachievers. And more often than not, they are just a prolongation of the inevitable exit from the company.
The urgent need to focus on average and low performers as much as we currently do on best employees - if we want transformative improvement for our company - comes from a surprising field: education.
In the classroom
In an informative piece in The Economist on teacher improvement, convincing evidence is presented showcasing that student performance in the classroom improves drastically when low and average performing teachers are mentored closely and carefully. Not the top teachers but the ones that are struggling with results provide the biggest opportunity and hope for change! The article concludes:
“Until now, the job of the teacher has been comparatively neglected, with all the focus on structural changes. But disruptions to school systems are irrelevant if they do not change how and what children learn. For that, what matters is what teachers do and think. The answer, after all, was in the classroom.”
Which brings us to the main leadership insight. It is not the educational system that makes or breaks pupils but the day-to-day, person-to-person performance of teachers. Amazingly enough, it is not the star teachers alone that can bring success but also those at the other end of the continuum. Improve your underachievers and miracles can happen!
It’s all about Relationships
Corporations have long been obsessing about optimizing processes. Rules, procedures, structures, authority and communications lines are often in focus when trying to improve performance. Consequently, management becomes the guardian of processes and systems and not of people. People are viewed just as another resource: human resource. But this is not the way. The main lesson from the 2015 Fortune 100 Best Companies To Work For list was that people look for and value relationships more than they look for perks and tangible benefits. Relationships are what make a company great, not procedures. Relationships ARE the company.
For those trained in marketing, this sounds very similar to the concept of Relationship Marketing. This concept, popular in the 90s, suggests that already existing customers are a bigger asset for companies than new ones. This is because cross-selling to existing clients is cheaper and faster than converting new ones. Leadership thinking seems to be catching up. Although not entirely new, Relational Leadership is becoming more popular than ever. And this is a good thing. Our brain is a social organ. We have evolved to grow and thrive in relation to other people. As neurons in our brain degenerate and die faster when isolated, people do too. The Harvard Grant Study has now established the fact that health, happiness and wealth depend more on relations than on other, more expected, factors.
Do you want to become a better leader? Focus passionately on relations. This is why one of the four pillars in the Brain Adaptive Leadership approach we have developed in our book, Neuroscience for Leaders, is Relations. The way your brain connects with other brains determines success: theirs and yours.
And start with those that do not perform very well. With great relationships and meaningful mentoring, they can unleash the hidden power that your company needs so much to survive and thrive. It’s cheaper and faster. The only thing you need to do is to connect with them.
It is a brainer after all... a big one!
Dr Nikolaos Dimitriadis (PhD, MBA) is a Certified Neuromarketer and the author of the book “Neuroscience for Leaders: A Brain Adaptive Leadership Approach” (Kogan Page). He works as the Development Director at The University of Sheffield International Faculty.