Fostering Excellence
Bringing out the best in each of us
Coping with non-performers is one of the hardest challenges of leadership. Leaders want their organization’s to be successful, but they also want their individual employees to be successful. Not everyone in their organization will perform their best, however. It should go without saying that good leaders will invest in their employees, growing and developing them to their best abilities. Yet it will still be the case in every organization that some of those who good leaders have attempted to develop will continue to fall short of the needs of the organization.

When leaders have eliminated training as the barrier to the individual success of an employee, then they must look elsewhere for an explanation. Barring training as the source of the problem, leaders are left to explore issues of alignment, capacity and self-motivation. When employees lack self-motivation, leaders are forced to continually pour extrinsic motivation into those employees, an exhausting task that takes leaders away from other important work. In the case of a lack of capacity, there is simply nothing leaders can do to help. When employees are out of alignment with their employment, the employee needs to be aligned with different employment.

In each of these cases, it’s time for the employee to move on to a new job in the company or a new company altogether. Often, employees refuse to move on to employment that suits them better and leaders find it difficult to move them on. Leaders, however, need to look to the needs of not only this employee, but also to the needs of the other employees and the organization at large. When leaders keep on non-performers, they punish their organization in a variety of ways, something that is unfair to everyone concerned.

Why Retaining Non-Performers Hurts Your Organization in Indirect Ways

Fear of Being Undermanned – One misnomer that can weigh into a non-retention decision is the idea that if the non-performer is let go, then the organization will be undermanned. The organization, however, is already undermanned since the duties associated with the non-performer are not being fully or adequately performed. They are either not being done, or being done by others in their organization which punishes your other employees. It’s important to understand, organizations with non-performers are undermanned even if every position is filled!

Limited Hiring Opportunities – It’s hard to backfill positions that are never vacated. When leaders retain non-performers, they are usually unable to backfill the position. This hurts the organization in two ways. Not only are they artificially stuck with the non-performer, they are unable to hire a performer. Leaders need to take some risk, leave a position open and wait for the right person to fill the position.

Normalizes Underperformance – When leaders allow non-performers to remain in their positions, the underperformance is normalized across the organization. Employees watch what leaders do and what they don’t do. When they see that underperformance is permitted, the bar for performance is implicitly lowered across the organization. Why should they have to work hard if their coworkers don’t have to and still get to keep their jobs? It also makes it very difficult for leaders to raise the bar of performance later when they have obviously done nothing to ensure that the previous standard was met.

Lowers Morale – Finally, and perhaps most importantly, retaining non-performers lowers the morale of your most critical asset-your actual performers. By retaining non-performers, you invalidate the work of the performers. You communicate to your performers that performance is not important to you, and imply that the extraordinary efforts of your performers are either unnoticed or do not matter. They need to know that their efforts matter and are noticed. They need to be a part of a team that is all pulling together. Leaders can only deliver that team if they only retain team members that will pull their weight.  

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Saying goodbye to non-performers is a challenging part of leadership but an essential one. By doing so, you maintain solid standards and open the avenue to raise the standards to new heights. You also fulfill a commitment you have with your high performers to deliver to them coworkers that will partner together to achieve great things for your organization. Finally, you raise the morale of the entire organization as you validate their efforts.

Michael Farr, PMP, is a Chief Master Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force and founder of Fosteringexcellence.org. He is passionate about recognition and enabling professionals to motivate their organizations through recognizing their member’s excellence. When he is not slaying dragons with his kids, he can be found at @fosterxcellence on Twitter and @fosteringexcellence on Facebook.