Your High Performers Are Watching How You Treat Low Performers

One of the most important environmental factors affecting employee performance is the performance levels of their coworkers.

Humans are herd animals and we pay attention to what the rest of the herd is doing. What we believe is impressive, possible, or simply expected at work is based in part on what our coworkers are accomplishing. The drive and skills of people is affected by the drive and skills of the people around them. There are individual differences in how much people focus on others’ performance and how they react to competition. But all people are affected by the performance of their coworkers in one way or another. To paraphrase the poet John Donne, no one is an island.

High performing people draw energy and ideas from being around other high performers. They lose energy and inspiration when forced to work with people that don’t share their focus on doing the best job possible. If you want highly engaged and productive high performers, then you must effectively manage low performers.

Strugglers and Misfits

In my experience, there are two general kinds of low performers: strugglers and misfits. Strugglers are not counterproductive, they just aren’t productive enough. Although strugglers have bad performance they are not bad employees. They are good employees who are finding it hard to meet expectations at a given point in time.

Strugglers should be coached to raise their performance, both for their sake, and because tolerating their underperformance creates a drag on the performance of others. Part of coaching them is giving them confidence that they can be successful. You want and may even need strugglers to stay on the team. But you need them to act differently in the future from how they acted in the past.

Misfits are employees whose behavior is actively detracting from the performance and morale of the company and their coworkers. These people may be in the wrong job or may simply have the wrong attitude toward their work. These are people who must “shape up or ship out.”

Most misfits are a result of hiring the wrong person for a job, changing an employee’s job to the point that they can no longer perform it effectively, or having an employee undergo a change in attitude toward their job often due to non-work related issues. It is important to give misfits a chance to improve, but it is equally important to get them out of the job if they fail to get better.

How Low Performers are Treated Matters

Employees watch how their company deals with low performers. If the company tolerates low performance then employees will conclude that low performance is acceptable, even if they personally hold themselves to a higher standard.

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Employees will also notice if you treat low performers in a cruel and insensitive manner. Every employee may struggle with performance at some point in their career. When this happens, employees remember how the company treated others in this situation. How the company treated their coworkers in the past will influence whether they constructively engage with the organization to improve their performance, attempt to hide their challenges, or simply quit.

A good performance management process must effectively address both good and bad performance. It is true that much of performance management is about recognizing and supporting high performers. But you cannot have a true high performance organization if you don’t effectively address the reality of low performance.

Dr. Steve Hunt

Steven Hunt, Ph.D., SPHR, is Director of Business Transformation at SuccessFactors. Previously he was Chief Scientist at Kronos Incorporated, guides development of technology enabled talent management solutions. His experience spans many industries including retail, healthcare, dining, manufacturing, information technology, and transportation. An active author and speaker, Dr. Hunt regularly presents at conferences and has written dozens of articles for trade and peer-reviewed journals. He is also author of Hiring Success, a book published by the Society of Human Resource Management on the use of staffing assessment tools. He holds a Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology and a B.A. in applied mathematics.