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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Addressing Mediocre Performance

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Confrontations

QDear Crucial Skills,

I am struggling with a couple of low performers who are just not cutting it. Their performance is mediocre at best, but there is not enough cause to terminate them. Customers don’t complain about them, but they never receive compliments either.

I have a waiting list of excellent applicants trying to get into my department that could elevate our team’s performance, but I feel as though I am stuck with these few who are not up to par. How should I handle employees who just skate by doing the minimum?

Managing Mediocrity

A Dear Managing Mediocrity,
I hope you’re sitting down because my answer is going to suggest more work than you might have hoped. But I can assure you that if you really want to raise performance for not only these two low performers, but for the entire team, this is the route you have to take.

First, let’s agree on the real problem. The issue you’re facing is not two low performers. The issue is low expectations. If these two team members are truly low performers and yet “there is not enough cause to terminate them,” then you are operating in a culture with mediocre norms. And if that’s true, then the work you have to do is not first and foremost with the two low performers, it is with chronically bad norms. If your team was crystal clear on high performance expectations, mediocrity would be painfully apparent and you wouldn’t have to make a tough call when it came time to counsel or terminate.

So while this may sound like the long way of dealing with what you see as a two-person problem, I suggest you solve the expectation problem first. If you don’t, your action against these employees will likely be seen as unfair and confusing. Over the years, we’ve had performance concerns with employees in our company as well, and while we’ve not always been perfect, we’ve tried to hold ourselves to a standard that no one’s termination will ever come as a surprise.

That’s quite a burden to put on both the manager and the organization. But it is the right burden. At times we’ve had senior managers who said, “This person just isn’t going to make it.” Their inclination was to simply let the individual go. In these cases, our “no surprise” policy held them to a much higher standard. They were required to be much more specific and clear about concerns, then follow with progressive discipline for defined periods of time. And while I cannot say this always resulted in the employee turning things around, I can say three equally important things:

  1. Employees learned far more from this painful process.
  2. They were far more likely to feel justly treated at the end.
  3. Their departure built trust, rather than insecurity, in the rest of the organization as employees learned that there would be no “surprises” in their careers if managers had concerns about their performance.

So, how do you reset norms? How can you set a high performance standard that makes dealing with mediocrity much clearer?

  1. Confirm the HR Standard. You, your peers, your bosses, and HR need to have a uniform and explicit understanding about the kind of performance you expect from people. Some organizations are satisfied with a bell curve. Others are very explicit that they want A-players in all positions. These standards have implications for selection, compensation, development, and so on.

    If you want A-players in all positions, you’ll have to pay for them. You’ll have to be willing to search for them. You’ll need to invest in developing them. And you’ll need to remove those who don’t make the grade. These are big commitments to make and you need to be sure you have enough support from your own chain of command before you claim that you are setting this standard.

  2. Go Public. Once you have sufficient support for the hard decisions involved with a higher performance standard, you’ll have to go public. Let people know the bar is being raised. Let them know of any implications for jobs, for development, and any other consequences people will need to understand so there are no surprises. Acknowledge that the norms were different in the past, without sounding self-righteous and judgmental of past leadership. Frankly state how things will be going forward and why this is right for the organization and good for those involved.

    Sell the vision as a way of instilling pride and ambition, but acknowledge that some may not make it. Let people know that there will be ample and just opportunities to upgrade their contribution, as well as how you’ll support that with candor, coaching, and development.
  3. Coach, Coach, Coach—Replace. Now live the standard. If someone performs below the standard, coach them—have the “content” conversation to let them know the gap between what they did and what you expected. If it continues, coach again—but this time as a “pattern” conversation—let them know this is now a chronic concern, not an isolated concern.

    If needed, this escalation is documented and any necessary support in the form of training, mentoring, work process change, etc., is offered. If it happens again, it’s time for a “relationship” conversation. At this point the person must know that termination or reassignment is an option. This must be put in writing to allow no wiggle room in understanding.

In conclusion, the greatest challenge you’ll face in coaching is not the individual’s performance, but your own clarity. Far too few managers know how to articulate the difference between mediocre performance and great performance. And if you can’t describe it you can’t expect it. You must do the hard work of detailing the behaviors and results you expect to see and contrasting those with typical mediocre performance. Every minute you spend more expertly articulating expectations will save you an hour in debate and resentment later.

I know this is a longer answer than you may have wanted, but it’s definitely worth the work.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

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