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Gut Check: Are You Protecting a Poor Performer?

If there is anything that I’ve learned in my own career, it is that organizations cannot succeed without adhering to one fundamental principle – we can only achieve high performance when employees and leaders commit to being their best, in everything that they do.

And it’s not just me. This principle was top-of-mind for senior executives and human resource professionals surveyed in a recent global research project that my team and I recently released.

Part of the research explored the behaviors that differentiate truly accountable leaders.  The respondents were asked to rank the behaviors they believe to be the most important for success.

At the top of the list was the idea that leaders must hold their teams to high standards of performance. This means there is no settling for poor performance, no tolerance for mediocrity.

This is hardly a revolutionary idea. To be effective, leaders must set the bar high for themselves and the people they lead.

And yet, in my work as a leadership adviser, I hear stories all the time about how leaders and the people they lead fail to live up to and hold each other to higher standards of performance.

Our organizations are rife with underachievers who have somehow managed to keep their jobs despite demonstrating consistently poor or mediocre performance.

When organizations allow underperformers to exist without consequence, it drives people nuts. Truly accountable leaders are constantly complaining to me: “How is that person allowed to still be in this company, given how hard everyone else is working?”

That’s actually a great question: how do underperformers keep their jobs?

What I’ve come to learn is that in many cases, too many ineffective, underperformers are being protected by ineffective, underperforming managers and leaders.

It’s a vicious cycle where slackers, bullies and malingerers are being protected by people with the very same tendencies.

What I’ve learned is that a truly accountable leader or employee has the courage to confront these issues. When no one steps up to speak out about underperformance, it reflects an organization that is bereft of accountability.

This is no small matter. A lack of accountability hurts organizations when they attempt to recruit and retain top talent. High performers are less likely to remain when they see bad or mediocre work tolerated. Those people will certainly warn off other talented recruits from ever setting foot inside the door.

We can address this problem by looking at some of the root emotions at play.

At times, tolerance for underperformance may be driven out of genuine loyalty to a person. Years back the individual really was helpful to a leader. In turn, the leader feels indebted and a responsibility to take care of the individual, at all costs.

I’ve seen other examples, where the leader simply plays favourites, and rewards people for being loyal rather than performing at a high level. The poor performer knows they are being protected and even rub it in everyone’s faces.

I’ve also seen the leader protect an employee based on past, good performance. The employee may have been a strong contributor at some point, but that’s no longer the case. Yet the leader is out of touch with current reality and continues to have a blind spot for the person based on past glory.

Finally, I’ve seen leaders who are simply afraid to get into a conflict with an underperforming employee. They put off the tough conversations and hope that no one notices how poor a job that person is doing.

Is this happening to you in your leadership role?

Remember, underperformance is everyone’s problem. You all sink or swim together when you’re out there competing against other organizations to achieve a business goal.

Weak links have the potential to bring everyone down, so it’s important to ensure you have the guts, and the principles, to step up and call out substandard performance.

This week’s leadership gut check asks: are you protecting a poor performer?

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About the Author

Vince Molinaro is a speaker, consultant, executive at Lee Hecht Harrison, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Leadership Contract now in its second edition.

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