Almost without fail, people are of a singular concern when it comes to the team they work on. Whether it’s the customary Friday-after-margaritas or in complaints quietly murmured in the hallways, or developing into uglier things like layoffs: the under-performer.
Everyone, it seems, has worked on a team where one or more employees isn’t up to the skill level of the rest of the team. This can lead to catastrophic failure and it needn’t. There ware ways to take these under-performers and either turn them into the performers they can be, or to use them for purposes that don’t endanger a project’s – or a team’s – success or reputation.
First, it may be that all men are created equal. We are of course not all paid equally, and we do not all go to the same schools, and we don’t learn the same skills in our careers up to the point where we meet one-another on a team. But, for the most part, many of our differences are trivially small and can be overcome. Sadly, they often aren’t, for a number of reasons.
I will instead focus on how to take these disparities in performance or knowledge levels, and make them less of a detriment to a team and hopefully turn the under-performer into someone who is able to perform at the same level as everyone else, and even provide benefits not ordinarily considered the by-product of the under-performer.
Once a colleague of mine and I were discussing how difficult it was to navigate a simple surface street in San Diego. It seemed that, while the signals were clearly marked or placed, and that the lines were well-drawn and the roads well paved – it was a wealthy suburb after all – some people just didn’t seem capable of making left turns from the left lane, making right turns from the right lane – especially on red, especially when given the opportunity, it seemed – and what should have been orderly traffic became a sort of antagonistic chaos. It flowed, but it flowed in fits and starts, with obscenities yelled from windows and I am sure more than the occasional car accident.
I could say that this happened before I had reached some moment of Zen in my life after which I understood the world better, but it would be a bald-faced lie. Instead, I became just as angry as everyone else, and I began to swear and say things like, “it should be painful to be stupid!” This conversation, for such a base topic, continued long enough, and spilled from the roadway to discussions of our respective jobs and people we knew that my colleague stopped me. My colleague, it should be mentioned, works with a vast number of clients in a given year, orders of magnitude more than I do – and I work with a lot of people.
What she said to me struck me, literally, and sadly with a bit of a pun, dumb. “You know,” she said, “not everyone gets to go to the moon.” Now my colleague did not work in aerospace, but it was very clear what she was saying and I was so derailed from my path of ranting that it took some time to digest before we both rather burst out in laughing and changed the subject from the idiots in the street to other, more important, and immediate issues.
We don’t all get to go to the moon. It’s deceptively simple, and yet it says so very much. If you consider the early, and even contemporary or civilian space programs very, very few people are considered for the astronaut corps. At the time of writing, fewer than five hundred people have been to space. Far, far fewer have been more than once, and only a handful has ever been to the moon. And yet, this corps of men and women we choose from are the very best and brightest of every field we can assemble. They pass physical tests the vast majority of us could not even conceive of taking, let alone passing. Their vision is perfect. Their reflexes are as acute as those of the most successful Top Fuel drag racer. These men and women are absolutely the best, and yet, even among them, not everyone gets to go to the moon.
Perhaps it sounds as though this has little relevance to the project you’re working on. The reason you’re interested in reading this is it might give you some insight into how to use, abuse, get rid of, or otherwise turn around this twist of fate that’s given you a poor performer.
Pause for a moment, though, and consider this: you’re reading this right now at work instead of doing your own work, aren’t you? You, in a way, are not doing what you should be doing. Let us say, then, that the first step towards turning around an under-performer is to realize that we all under-perform from time to time, Nobody, and I do mean nobody, is always on, always productive, always making a sale or squashing a bug or finding your missing sandal all the time.
Let’s then expand this “under-performer” moniker to include ourselves then, because clearly, we, too, do not perform as expected all the time, despite the high opinion we all carry of ourselves.
But what about the guy at the office, that one guy, you started reading this article because of him: the one you want off the team, or you don’t want to work with him anymore because he’s just not the sharpest tool in the shed.
Well, we don’t all go to the moon.
Consider, in the task of sending men to the moon, how many moving parts there are in a Saturn V rocket. How many lives were at stake (believe me, not just the people in the tiny little capsule; von Braun is famous for commenting upon seeing a Saturn V on the launch pad that, were it to spontaneously explode, the force of the explosion would literally be in the kiloton- (that is to say, atomic-bomb) yield. That’s a pretty big bang.
In sending men to the moon, we have people who run hoses through holes in panels. We have people that screw one panel to another. We have people who apply hot air guns to heat shrink tubing to splices in wiring. Not everyone goes to the moon.
So what do you do? Your project, if you’re anything like the rest of the world, probably has somewhere between six and twenty-five people. You’ve hired this guy that seems to underperform, and yet there doesn’t seem to be a heat-shrink tubing position for him, nor does there seem to be a cable-puller position for him, either. But have you really thought hard enough about this?
Let me offer you two things.
Firstly, we all started somewhere. It sounds so trite to say because of course we can all look down and see a navel and know that somebody taught us to talk. But who taught you python, or program management, or how to use a hydraulic palette lift? Who taught you how to efficiently stack inventory? Somebody did. Teaching this person – there are people who are teach-proof; I’ve met them, but they are, let me be emphatic about this, the exception and not the rule – helps you. It helps you in more ways than you think. The first thing is, they might be missing some simple trick, and your walking through the procedure(s) with them may make them incrementally more helpful to the point that they are a valuable member of the team. The other thing is, by teaching this person, you are learning a new skill – you are learning to teach. Everyone is a little different, and so each new person you teach – believe me, seeking out the under-performers is a great way to learn how to teach people – helps you hone your teaching skill. You can subsequently list such fancy things as mentored junior employees on your resume. It’s really a valuable skill to have because every team you run across, almost without fail, will have an under-performer that you can probably reform.
The second thing that people forget socially, but especially in the workplace is, while it’s a really fantastic social place to meet people and you can and often do make lifetime friends at the office, it is still the place that pays you – and the under-performer. So while you might go home to your spouse tonight and complain about the under-performer and how your day was awful because the O-ring gasket was just not fitting the Solid Rocket Boosters in the cryogenics tests as it’s supposed to; you know it’s Jones in the O-ring group. We forget that Jones, too, has a family. Chances are, Jones wants that O-ring to work, and chances are, he’s going home to his spouse or his family, and saying, I really have no idea how to make these gaskets work any better!
Your work to get this person off your team, to get that contractor laid off, to “get that person fired” (do people really have conversations like that?), is going to have a huge impact on that person’s life. There is no question that it is easier to keep the same team and bring the overall skill level up, including Jones in the O-ring group, to the level where you succeed. Because then, everyone wins .
No, we don’t all get to go to the moon. But the same effort we expend in trying to push somebody out of a team can be expended in enhancing our own careers and the effectiveness of our team.
More importantly, humans are social animals. While we guard our workplaces, often as jealously as children guard their corner of the sandbox in pre-school, not allowing interlopers in, or people who don’t fit the standard du jour, that same effort you spend harming or trying to extricate or even harm, be it verbally, psychologically , or otherwise, ,, ,,,,, that person you could spend bringing them up to the same skill level you are, increasing your value to your employer, and your team’s value to your employer. Sure, your under-performer might not go to the moon, but you might not either. Even the best don’t, sometimes.
As far as the mentioned Zen: Zen is knowing that it is easier for you to take an employee who is difficult to work with and make them easier to work with than it is for your to make their life so difficult that they leave or to have the company take such drastic measures itself that the employee leaves. The under-performer, like you, is a person, and probably does want to go to the moon, just like you, just like the rest of your team, just like everyone does. It is far easier, in these cases, to do good, and indeed it is better for your career, than it is to interfere as a malcontent and conniver or conspirator.