why team leaders tolerate poor performance

5 Sad Reasons Team Leaders Tolerate Poor Performance

Letting slackers slide reduces your credibility, causes your best performers to bolt, and leaves the rest of the team wondering why they bother. No one wants to mire in their own mediocrity. And high-performers hate nothing more than watching their poor-performing teammates drag down results. Tolerating poor performance creates a morale death spiral that takes Herculean force to reverse.

Of course there’s also the over-the-cube talk about the two slackers– the poor performing guy and you. The more you allow the poor performance to go on, the more the rest of the team will shrug their shoulders and join the poor performance bandwagon. Now the death spiral is accelerating with centripetal force, squandering time and draining vital energy from your team.

The sad truth is that every day, team leaders around the world turn their heads and let the poor performance continue.

Don’t fall into these traps.

Why Team Leaders Tolerate Poor Performance

I’m going to start with the benefit of the doubt: that you (or the team leader you’re trying to help) cares, and is not a performance problem. If that’s not the case, same rules apply, one level up.

Beyond that, here’s a gut check for why you’re allowing poor performance to continue.

    1. Guilt- You worry you haven’t done enough to develop to support, develop, encourage, and build confidence, empower, or recognize. If that’s truly the case, you’re right. You’ve got more work to do. Get going. BUT, if you have invested and invested again and it’s still not working it’s time to face that this job may not be the right fit. Stop feeling guilty. You need to do what’s right for the greater good of the company and the team
    2. Morale – I’ve seen so many team leaders so worried about building great morale, that they actually destroy it. If everything everyone does is just great then the folks who are really giving their all wonder why they do. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the rest of the team thank me for addressing poor performance. Of course such things are private, but trust me, your team is more astute than you may think.
    3. Saving Face – You hired the guy. Perhaps you even convinced you boss that he was the one. If you’ve done everything you can to make it work, and it still isn’t, it’s far better to admit you were wrong, learn from your experience and move on. Don’t magnify one poor decision with another.
    4. Confidence – You’re scared. You’re not sure how to approach the situation. Get some help. There’s nothing harder for a leader to do than to address poor performance, or remove someone from the team. It never is easy, but it does get easier. Practice your conversation with a peer or mentor. Plan the conversation and anticipate responses. You can do this.
    5. Lack of Alternatives – I can’t tell you how many times someone has called me for an internal reference for a poor performer they are about to hire, and after I share the issues and concerns, they hire them any way. I actually had one guy say recently, ‘well, Karin you have a very high standards, I’m not sure that’s realistic. The funny part is that I had back-filled this guy with someone who was running circles around his predecessor. Hire slow. The great ones are out there and deserve a chance.

If you’ve got a struggling performer on your team, do all you can to help. And if It’s time to let them move on, help them to do that gracefully.

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Posted in Career & Learning, Communication, Energy & Engagement and tagged , , , , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, is CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders and a former Verizon Wireless executive. Karin was named on Inc.’s list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers for Your Next Conference, the American Management Association List of 50 Leaders to Watch, and as a Trust Across America Top Thought Leader in Trust. She’s the award-winning author of two books, Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results— Without Losing Your Soul, and Overcoming an Imperfect Boss. She’s regularly featured in business publications including Fast Company, Entrepreneur, and Inc.

13 Comments

  1. Poor performance can often lead to a totally dysfunctional team and major conflict when not every one is pulling their load.

    I find that sitting down with the team leader and the poor performer and sorting out the expectations of each can be very helpful. Sometimes the expectations are not as clear as they could be and once that is shared productivity skyrockets.

    Terrific post, Karin!

    • Terri, Great add. I so agree, so often there is a disconnect in expectations.

  2. I think one of the main reasons people allow poor performance to continue on teams is that they lack the skill to have a conversation with the person. We in offices need to build our skill sets and learn how to have difficult conversations. A couple of great resources I have come across in recent years include “Crucial Conversations” by the team at Vital Smarts, and “Having Hard Converstations” by Jennifer Abrams. The principals shared in these books will help; teams could even work on them together and build the skill together so that everyone fills comfortable dealing with these issues.

    • Carol, Thanks so much. I love the Crucial Conversations book. Very practical, easy to implement advice.

  3. Sometimes leaders tolerate lack of performance because they’re mentally checked out:

    1) The job no longer lights them up and team performance is a reflection of the leader. Ambivalent, lackadaisical, no vision, etc.

    2) The leader is in transition and hasn’t told anyone. Their endgame is to be out of that job in a matter of months, a year, etc. There’s no reason for them to care about performance.

    • Steve,

      Oh, I’ve seen both of those happen. That’s really doing a disservice to the team. The true sign of a leader is what happens after they walk away.

  4. You bring up really important points, Karin.

    I have found that people really do lack confidence, and this is the single factor that holds many people back.

    And that goes for both leaders and team members…leaders tend to have a very difficult time acknowledging that confidence is a problem, so they go overboard on the bravado…but it still all comes from insecurity…

    • LaRae, So true… often what masquerades as “confidence” is really insecurity.

  5. I’ve been guilty of a number of these, especially number one. I have a tendency to think there must be some coaching I missed or maybe my message wasn’t clear. In the end, when I finally take action I end up realizing I waited longer than I should have. Having learned that lesson I try to be more honest with myself, and ask for feedback from others who will probably tell me what I don’t want to acknowledge but it brings me to the decision more quickly. Still hard to do what has to be done but, as you noted, the rest of the team usually gets it and appreciates that I dealt with the issue. Sometimes the person is truly in denial but often when I do have the tough conversion they were equally unhappy and ready to move on. My hope is they find a better fit somewhere else.

    • Scott, Thanks so much for weighing in. I can’t tell you how many times a team has responded with relief when the poor performer is gone. It’s never easy, but I’m with you…. often the person with whom you’re having the tough conversation is equally relieved. I actually have had people come back and thank me for giving them the nudge they needed to find what they really loved.

  6. Morale is probably the one I relate to the best. I’m at my best as an encourager. So, giving constructive feedback is more difficult. I’m fortunate not to have any slackers on my small staff. Still there’s room to grow for everyone….especially me.

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