Ways to manage high and low performers

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People who invest their money wisely spend more time focusing on the investments with the greatest chance of turning out to be winners. Do you do the same when managing the performance of your employees? If you are like most managers, sadly the answer is that you get caught up spending too much time with low performers who have a fair chance of being acceptable, but not stars. What would happen if you dedicated more time to your employees who are acceptable performers yet exhibit clear signs of being high performers? The answer is that many of these acceptable performers will move into the ranks of high performers.

So, as a manager, CEO or business owner, how do you identify the employees you should focus on, and how can you make the most of your lower performers?

Be Selective About Who to Focus Upon

The first lesson is to carefully select who will be important for you to invest time, energy, and other resources in to developing their performance. This decision is incredibly important; if you choose a low performer, then your likely payoff will not be as great as if you had selected a high performer. This may seem at odds with what you have learned in the past, or it may even seem to go against the grain of democracy or fighting for the underdogs. But, if your goal is to maximize performance, then this approach is more likely to yield greater results quickly.

As humans, we can only really improve 2-3 things at a single time, no matter what multi-taskers tell you. Deliberate practice on 2-3 things is what drives high impact gains in performance and productivity. Deliberate practice can be enhanced with explicit, targeted feedback from managers. It is far easier, more rewarding, and more effective to leverage strengths, rather than solely focusing upon weaknesses. The key is to find strength in one area and get the performer to use that strength in an area that requires improvement. Real, sustained improvement takes time. This requires patience on your part as a manager focusing upon the long term and not just the quick fix. The quicker the fix, the less sustainable the result. 

Keep Hope Alive for All Performers

The second lesson is keep hope alive for all performers, even those who are chronically low. What does this mean? As a manager or CEO, you want to make investments, though not equal investments, in all performers. But, do not potentially waste too much time, energy and other resources in your employees who, at their very best, will only be an average or acceptable performer. This does not mean that they are not a good person, that they are not worthy of their salary or that they are a slacker. It may simply mean that they are comfortable in their current position and have no desire to become the company superstar, or that they are a bad fit for your organization. A manager that wants to improve performance should demonstrate what psychologists call “Unconditional Positive Regard.” This means that you accept where your staff begins their performance improvement journey. For some, they may begin behind, for others at the right place, and some are even ahead. Assess the starting place but do not judge. Then, you can identify the signature strengths of all of your staff, even chronic low performers; it is unlikely that they are not doing well in all aspects of their job.

Watch out for the “Pygmalion Effect.” This means that your staff rises or falls to your expectations. In other words, if you have low expectations, then they will move to meet your low expectations. The opposite is also true; if you have high expectations, then your employees will move to meet your high expectations.

Focus on making progress toward a longer term goal, and reward that progress, even if it is only one baby step after another. By rewarding small steps to the larger performance goal, you will also feel less frustration because you know your efforts with the low performers are paying off.

Reassign or Fire Chronic Low Performers

The third lesson is to cut your losses relatively early. Our country’s goal is to increase employment, but as a manager or CEO you also have a responsibility to your boss or stockholders, to your company, and your customers.

There are two ways to address chronic low performers. First, if after setting clear expectations, monitoring their performance, giving feedback about their performance, coaching them, and then letting them know about the consequences of underperforming, you see no improvement, you should let them go.

Second, if your company cannot afford to let any employees go in order to keep the operation running, you should reassign the chronic low performers. When you reassign an employee, you protect the majority of those that are performing well from a smaller group that could persuade them to lower performance across the board or distract the higher performers.

Picture yourself three to six months from now after experimenting with these three recommendations. Not only will you have a plan for all performers but you will have dedicated more time, energy and resources to those performers with the greatest payoff. Your time is precious; you can only focus on so much. You have to be selective about what you focus upon. You have to prioritize. Be sure to do this when you are managing performance in your company and feel confident that your investment will pay off for you, your company and your customers.

Dr. Marty Martin has been speaking and training nationally and internationally for more than 30 years. Currently, he is working on Taming Disruptive Behavior, which will be published by The American College of Physician Executives (ACPE) in late 2012. Dr. Martin is the director of the Health Sector Management MBA Concentration and associate professor in the College of Commerce at DePaul University in Chicago, Ill., and practices at Aequus Wealth Management. For more information, please visit http://www.drmartymartin.com.


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