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We Can’t Ignore Poor Performers!

by David Brock on August 28th, 2013

Every organization has them, the bottom 20%, the people who are not meeting our expectations of performance.  They’re a problem–for themselves, for their managers, for the organization, and for your customers.  My friend, Mike Kunkle wrote a great post on this, Focus On Your Average And Poor Performers To Improve Sales.

Too often, we just ignore them.  We shut them out, we don’t spend time working with them.  When we do, they have the potential of sucking up management time.

Ignoring poor performers is the worst thing we can possibly do.  Yet hundreds of blog posts would imply that you do.  They suggest, “spend your time with ‘A and B’ players!”  Others quote data, a 1% improvement in performance of an “A” player is worth much more than the same in a non-performer.  So there is lots of talk about the value of coaching high and aspiring high performers, and very little mention of what to do with everyone else–particularly the poor performers.

Somehow, we tend to ignore the poor performers—and that’s a bigger problem than the poor performers themselves.

We don’t like dealing with them–they drain us, the discussion focuses on problems, not opportunities.  There is conflict, potential for confrontation, which too many tend to avoid.

When we do choose to address poor performance, it gets really complicated.  If we intend to fire  them, the we have to get HR involved, we have to go through all the stuff they make us go through–90 day plans, measured miles, and so forth.

Too often, we just ignore them.  Perhaps we wait for the next layoffs, taking care of problem performers by laying them off rather than all the hassle of terminating them.

Or we just ignore them–out of sight, out of mind.  We go along blissfully ignoring the problem poor performers create–more importantly the problem that managers who ignore poor performers create.

Poor performers cannot be ignored.  If they are the real performance problem is with the manager, not the performer.

Poor performers are a drain on the organization.  If management tolerates poor performance, then poor performers suck the performance of the whole organization down.  Everyone performs lower than they are capable of performing.  Poor performers take time–from everyone they encounter.  They take more management time than they should, they suck time away from peers–either through asking for help, or through distraction.  They suck the morale out of otherwise high performing teams.  Their poor performance draws the attention and potential ire of everyone.  Moreover, they drive customers into the waiting and hungry embrace of your competitors.

We cannot afford to ignore poor performers.  We have to invest time in fixing their performance.

Termination may be the right answer-for the poor performer and the company.  But we can’t arbitrarily terminate people without making sure that’s the right thing for the business and for them.

Performance problems are seldom an issue of just the individual.  We may have hired the wrong person.  We may not have identified performance issues early–when they are small and more easily fixable through coaching.  We may have put the right person into the wrong territory or job.  We may have failed in helping them develop the skills necessary for success.  We may be confusing “not liking” someone with “performance issues.”  However you cut it, management bears a huge part of the blame an responsibility for performance problems.

It’s our responsibility as managers to  deal with both our mistakes and the performance of the individuals.  We cannot ignore them, we cannot sweep them under the rug, they will keep coming back, biting us in the ass.

We need to quickly assess, can we get the individual to acceptable levels or performance, in the timeframe we need?  If so, are we willing and eager to do it–or have we already written the person off.  Are they willing and eager to do it, do they have the commitment, and, with our help, can they develop the capability.

I’ve covered a lot in these last few sentences.  The biggest mistake I see too many managers make, is fairly or unfairly, they have already emotionally written some one off—whether they are recoverable or not.  So any performance improvement process is predestined to fail—this is a management problem, our own attitudinal problem–which cheats the individual and could cheat the organization.

If we choose to put in place a performance improvement plan, because both we and the individual are committed to a successful outcome, then we have to work the plan–actively.  It’s not a box we check, it’s possibly daily involvement in making sure the person can be successful and sustain acceptable levels of performance themselves.

We owe these things to the individuals, to our companies, and ourselves–only if everyone involved is genuinely committed to the performance improvement process, and a positive outcome.  If we choose this course, mutually, we must commit the time required to achieve success.

If the problem performer is not committed to a successful outcome in the performance improvement plan, then it’s a waste of time and resources.  If you company mandates it, try to get an exception.

If the problem performer is committed, but we aren’t, then we are wasting everyone’s time, unfairly for the individual, and shouldn’t go through the performance improvement process.  The outcome is predetermined.  (Although the manager’s manager now has a performance problem on her hands–that of the poor performance of the manager.)

Regardless of the outcome with the individual, the performance problem isn’t just that of the individual.  The performance problem is “how did this occur in the first place?”  Did we make a bad hire, was there a bad onboarding process, was there a fundamental change in the business the person wasn’t able to internalize…….?  We need to understand how all this happened in the first place, addressing those issues as well.

It’s way too glib to say managers need to be investing their time in developing high and aspiring high performers.  We have to look at the performance of everyone in the organization.  We have to invest time in everyone, not necessarily equal time, to make sure they are performing as best possible.

We cannot ignore the poor performers, if we do, then we are performing poorly ourselves.

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21 Comments
  1. Hey Dave, thanks for the mention. Glad you liked the post. I agree we can’t ignore poor performers. I don’t think we should ignore anyone on our team.

    I think the reason so many decree that it’s better to spend more time elsewhere, is that so many poor managers get sucked into the abyss of trying to manage poor performers and they ignore good and great performers.

    That’s not an excuse for avoiding them, though, just an observation. I think you have to look at your available time for coaching and training, and split it among your team purposefully.

    For the bottom performers specifically, I like to look at the trends in that bucket. Some are there based on circumstances they’re working through, some are new and just passing through, others may be destined for success doing something else. At some point, after training and coaching them and seeing how they respond, you have to make an “up or out” decision and follow-through.

    Everyone deserves a chance, though. In the do or die, rough and tumble world of insurance sales, I used to guide managers to allocate a certain amount of time training and coaching everyone initially, and then allocate time based on where performers fell in the various buckets, combined with the performers’ effort and results.

    We have to train and coach team members, as individuals, to a point of being able to make a decision about how much more time to invest and how to invest it (working them up, or working them out). I used effort (were they listening to me, how hard did they try, how far off was their activity or effort) and results (what results were they getting, why was their effort/activity not working) and a little old-fashioned judgment (could they do it eventually, and what would it take to get them there) to make the up or out decision.

    Anyway, thanks for writing a great post on this. I especially liked your thoughts on shared responsibility. Sometimes, in our profession, I think we spend too much time talking about frontline sales and not nearly enough time talking about how to grow better sales managers and coaches.

  2. It takes too long to train and most training is not that effective. A better approach might be to pair a rep up with an experienced rep who is willing, interested and has the ability to train.

    • Jay: I both agree and disagree. Properly done, training can accelerate the change process—but too often training isn’t integrated into the business, it’s systems, processes, tools, strategic priorities, etc. It’s done as an “event.” Training must fit with everything else we do. Managers must continue to coach the training to have an enduring impact.

      Having said that, training coupled with good peer mentoring programs can be very powerful–both for the mentor and mentee. Thanks for the comment. Regards, Dave

  3. I could not just reply or comment, sorry, but I have written a blog response about this very important area of Sales Management.

    Thanks to Mike K. for kicking it off and Dave for giving a different view. Mine is different again and I hope for Sales Manager’s sakes pragmatic!

    http://tinyurl.com/omr9m2u

    • Brian, that’s a great post and dropped this comment on yours, as well. I appreciate the reference to my post, thanks. As I said on your blog, I guess I’m slow, because I do not see “the contrast” other than the fact that I (speaking in generalities and outside of a specific workplace context), recommended that managers spend only 10 percent of their time with the bottom 20% performers, helping the new ones rise and working the old ones out of the organization. If you read my post, my comments on Dave’s post here, and my previous posts on my own blog about coaching, we seem to be in violent agreement. Stay the course, Mike

    • Brian: Great article–actually a wonderful complement to Mike’s and mine. I think you make a great point–we have to treat poor performers differently. Actually we probably should treat everyone appropriately–not investing the same formulaic time, the same formulaic coaching, etc. Our coaching and development and investment in time must be appropriate.

      We want to invest our time where we have the greatest impact on performance and return on our investment in time.

      Too often, we see managers just ignoring poor performers. This is just wrong. We can’t ignore them, but we can’t treat them the same as others. Poor performers are a drain on the organization. We either have to get a workable plan for performance improvement–they are committed to and to which we believe there is a high potential for successful outcome, or we have to get them in a role where they can perform or get them out of the business.

      So I do think we are in agreement on principles, though actual execution will vary. We seem to have been able to play off each other pretty effectively—it’s a great conversation with two great minds–Mike and Brian. Thanks for continuing it. Regards, Dave

  4. John Sterrett permalink

    “a 1% improvement in performance of an “A” player is worth much more than the same in a non-performer.”

    Well, if each salesman is performing in a vacuum, maybe.

    But if they are aware of each others’ territory budgets, the branch budget; if they have general sales meetings where the top guys’ see the bottom guys’ underperformance, this will be a morale drain on the top guy. He will feel the pressure to make up the deficit in the branch budget. Maybe he starts looking for a job where he doesn’t have to carry more than his share of the weight.

    It will lower the morale and performance of the overall group.

    Let’s use a basketball analogy. If you have a player (the 20%) who is not contributing on the offensive end, it not only puts more pressure to score on the other guys (A & B players), but competition will also not worry about the low performer, and will double-team the high performers, making them less effective in their assignments.

    So what if we work with the low performer? What if we develop 2 or 3 moves that are sure-fire, 60% shots? A set shot from the elbow, maybe a low post jump hook? Then we position him for these, where he is a threat and has to be taken seriously.

    First, his scoring goes up, because he is not trying to do all the things the best guy can do, but is concentrating on a few things that yield consistent results. And the ‘A’ performer knows that everyone is fulfilling his role, not just taking up space. He is free to spin to the hoop and dunk without always worrying about obstacles or whether teammates will make mistakes that will reflect poorly on him.

    I will be interested to hear your responses / rebuttals.

    • John, to a degree, that’s what (at least I) was saying. Everyone deserves the initial effort. After that, the effort you apply, is based on their effort and results. Eventually, if you give them the initial training and coaching, by the time someone becomes an established (not new) “poor performer” (to me, the bottom 20%), your effort there is not going to yield much of a return (in my experience). At that point, you’re better off trying to move the middle performers (which I do not call poor performers) up a notch, while working the bottom performers out.

    • John, thanks for the comment. I think you got the point of the article 😉 The reference “A 1% improvement in performance of an ‘A’ player…” was a reference to arguments many others make. In the article, I cite the devastating drain that poor performers have on the entire organization–which is why we cannot ignore them. We either have to get their performance improved or move them out of the organization.

      So I think we are in wild agreement. Regards, Dave

  5. I completely agree with you. I read somewhere that Jack Welch used to fire the bottom 20% of GE’s employees every year.

    It might feel unfair to a lot of people but companies needs results and if you can’t deliver them…oh, well…

    • Jim, thanks for the comment. It’s actually unfair to the people if we keep them in jobs where they consistently cannot perform. We need to move them into roles where they can–sometimes that’s out of the company. Regards, Dave

  6. Doug Schmidt permalink

    Gentlemen thanks for all the great comments. Of course there are many facets and viewpoints to this discussion. Productivity and best efforts of all employees are critical.

    Interesting how at times we label the bottom 20 percent “poor performers”. What a great way to start a positive work culture and environment by labeling employees.

    Dave’s comments are right probably more accurate then we think – “Performance problems are seldom an issue of just the individual. We may have hired the wrong person. We may not have identified performance issues early–when they are small and more easily fixable through coaching. We may have put the right person into the wrong territory or job. We may have failed in helping them develop the skills necessary for success. We may be confusing “not liking” someone with “performance issues.” However you cut it, management bears a huge part of the blame an responsibility for performance problems.”

    • Doug, thanks for making the point about how we talk about people. Point taken – I did not clarify how I handled that inside an organization, so it’s easy to understand your concern about the impact on people, culture and environment, due to insensitive labeling.

      For clarity, there’s a big difference between how I would talk among peers about my work (to share how it’s done) and how I would speak about people inside of an organization.

      When I’ve done my analyses in organizations, every one I met with, studied, observed, interviewed or surveyed, was always treated with the greatest respect for their time and input. In fact, bands were color-coded and while people did sometimes need to know their color, they never knew what the color code represented. People are smart, so they try to figure it out, so I often use multiple colors to represent one band, or different locations within the bands. In 15 years of doing this, I can’t remember it creating a single issue for anyone, whether it was a one-on-one interview or focus group.

      However, at the end of the day, in the behind-the-scenes analysis, the “established” low producers were looked upon as “poor performers,” as were “new” low producers. (They were studied in separate groups, however, based on trend analysis.) Their performance was certainly poor when compared to others, in terms of production, however that was defined by the organization. I’m not a blanket fan of GE’s forced ranking (which is 20/70/10 – they didn’t fire the bottom 20%, as mentioned elsewhere, but the bottom 10%), but I do think you need to do research clinically and objectively, while treating people with respect and communicating about it internally, the same way. But that doesn’t change the facts. Nor does it alter the fact that poor performers may need to be transferred or terminated.

      You’re right about hiring managers and organization leaders owning a big part of the problem, too. As Geary Rummler often said, “Pit a good performer against a bad system, and the system wins almost every time.”

    • Doug, sorry about being so slow responding, this comment is just brilliant! Thanks so much. Regards, Dave

  7. Hi David! I saw your post in the bizsugar community and line from your article caught my eye which is “We cannot ignore the poor performers, if we do, then we are performing poorly ourselves” and I like it because it’s true.

  8. Logan permalink

    David- I can see you are an expert an yet, this article is not very good at all. It’s poorly written, and repetitive without much valuable information.
    I also must disagree with what you have said about “poor performers”.
    While it is true that they should not be ignored, training is not always the solution. Poor performers are a big drain on a business. Poor (sales) performers can sometimes still contribute revenue to a business, even if they aren’t the best, but they don’t warrant a large allocation of time and energy. I prefer what someone else said here, which was to pair them up with an experienced sales person and use the underperforming salesperson as an opener for the more advanced one.

    The problem with sales is that you can’t teach an unmotivated sales person. Poor performers are unmotivated individuals. All you can do is try to motivate them and facilitate learning/

    I really haven’t found any of the articles I’ve read by you to be in depth enough…please refer me to an article that is in depth so I can really understand what is your sales philosophy.

    • Logan: Sorry this article was so poor in your view. Regarding your comments about poor performers, I’m a little at a loss, you seem to have read a different article than I wrote:

      1. I never suggest training as the “solution.” Training may be a component of a solution, but is never the solution–even for top performers. I’m not sure how you leapt to that conclusion in the article.
      2. Sometimes teaming a poor performer with a better performer, temporarily, can help improve performance as they learn from the better performer. But I don’t buy the case of them being “opener.” Presumably, one of the reasons they are poor performers is they are ineffective with customers. So why would I ever want someone who is ineffective “opening.” In reality they would be pushing good opportunities away. The top performer may be diverted into damage control, reducing that individual’s productivity.
      3. While a poor performer may be contributing something to the business, why do I want them if they aren’t contributing what is expected. Let’s imagine I expect each sales person to contribute $1M, and the poor performer consistently does $0.5M. This means by keeping them, I’m sacrificing $0.5M ever year! Why wouldn’t I replace that person with someone who can do the job and produce $1M? It would be a crazy business decision not to. In fact, when we research poor performers, we find the opportunity cost–the losses, the bad reputation, the customer dissatisfaction, far exceeds the revenue they produce. So in fact, this poor performer could be costing millions. It doesn’t seem a prudent business decision to keep them on board, if they can’t improve or perform. Perhaps it’s a good business decision from your point of view, but I’m hard pressed to understand.
      4. I’m not sure what research or data shows that poor performers are unmotivated. I’ve encountered 100’s that are highly motivated, but may be in the wrong role, or have something else that keeps them from performing. Assuming poor performance is a motivation problem does both the poor performer and the organization a disservice.

      Apparently, we have very different experiences and views on performance and poor performers–but that’s part of what causes each of us to learn.

      I’m sorry you find my articles to be without sufficient depth. I wouldn’t pretend to satisfy everyone with these posts, so my best recommendation is for you to stop reading and find another person providing the depth you seek. Thanks for having visited, sorry to have wasted your time.

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