Crucial Accountability QA

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.


Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Secrets of Creativity

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Kerrying On

Listen to Kerrying On via MP3
Listen to Kerrying On via iTunes

Thirty years ago, I took a class with a group of doctoral students who reviewed and reported on the latest findings in organizational behavior. During each class period one of us would explain the current research surrounding topics such as motivation, cognitive dissonance, and so forth. Our entire grade was based on the ninety-minute report we shared with our classmates and the professor, who couldn’t wait to rip the presentation apart. As you might imagine, each session was a tense and lively experience.

For the last day of class, David Anderson was scheduled to report on the topic of creativity. I was looking forward to his presentation because I figured: creativity—it has to be fun, right? David stood up, smiled wryly and said something like the following.

“Creativity is an elusive topic. Researchers can’t agree that creativity even exists. No two people define it in the same way. And since people are at odds as to what creativity is, there is no shared dependent measure that a group of scholars has routinely studied and then written about in refereed journals. Ergo: creativity doesn’t even qualify as an academic topic.

“That also means that we don’t have independent measures. You can’t study what causes creativity, stimulates creativity, or even what kills creativity if you don’t know what creativity is. And once again, we don’t know what creativity is. Oh yes, one final comment, a lot of people talk about creativity, but it’s mostly a bunch of bunk.”

Then, to everyone’s surprise, David sat down.

David was right. Creativity is an elusive, often discussed but rarely studied topic. And yes, there is a lot of stuff out there aimed at making us more creative; but most of it, as David suggested decades ago, is far more cute and clever than it is insightful or helpful. For instance, we’re routinely told that in order to be creative we need to “ask the right question.” Which leads me to wonder, who is currently committed to asking the wrong question?

This particular advice is from the “think-outside-the box” genre. Apparently we’re all currently thinking inside the box and well, it’s stifling us. This concept actually grew out of the “our paradigm is screwed up” movement which argues that we don’t merely need to think outside the box, we need to embrace a whole new paradigm—no small task in light of the fact that (1) most of us don’t actually know what a paradigm is and (2) we’re even less aware of how to extract ourselves from one.

To be fair, as you watch most people at work—trying their best to be more creative—the idea of being stuck in a mental rut strikes a chord with most people and stems from a rather interesting line of inquiry. It started in the early 70s when Dr. James Adams of Stanford University first noticed that university freshmen appeared to be more creative than seniors. In his view, college was making students less creative, not more so. He measured this phenomenon by holding up a brick and asking students to brainstorm the potential uses of said rectangular object.

Freshmen came up with everything from crushing grapes to fending off an attacker. Seniors came up with less diverse uses. Engineering students were the worst. They were so up to their necks in their view of the world that by their fourth year they could only come up with ideas such as build a wall, build a taller wall, build a different colored wall, and oh! Here’s one: build a wall—but over there. With this in mind, Adams wrote Conceptual Blockbusting, where he further articulated the problem that the normal education process squelches rather than stimulates creativity.

Edward De Bono paralleled Adams’s work by coming up with the notions of lateral versus vertical thinking. De Bono focused on getting out of cognitive ruts by moving from vertical thinking, where ideas are similar and sequential, to lateral thinking, where ideas are quite different and non-sequential. From there, of course, it was only a short trip to thinking outside the box. Or better still, leaping into a whole new—what’s that thing again? Oh yes, a new paradigm.

If I sound a bit discouraged, it’s because precious little has been done with creativity since the topic first fell under academic scrutiny some forty years ago. And yet, despite the lack of thoughtful material on the topic, the world desperately needs all of us to be more creative. I, for one, sit down at a computer screen almost every single day and hope to “create” something worthwhile. Actually, I don’t seek to produce some thing, I hope to generate novel ideas, clever training methods, and dare I say it, creative material. In short, my job is to create creative stuff. So, after decades of trying to do just that, I’ve come up with a few ideas on what it takes to be creative. Today I’ll share five ideas.

Generate More Because Less Is Less.The best predictor of who is viewed by others as creative is the sheer volume of their output. Individuals who are dubbed creative, imaginative, original or inspired almost always come up with more material than their colleagues. They work on generating volumes of creative material which they then sift into a small amount of useable results—and it’s true in virtually every endeavor. Consider comedy. Woody Allen explains that early in his career he made up dozens of jokes, and then tested them in small comedy clubs. Then, less than one in ten of his gags made it on to the Carson show. If you watched Woody on the big stage, you’d think: “How does he come up with these gems?” By his own admission, he came up with lots of material, mostly mediocre, and then let the audience cull it. Don’t think of creativity as a gift possessed by a lucky few, think of it as the result of hard work—where sheer volume routinely trumps genius.

If It Ain’t Broke, Do Fix It. Each time I sit down with my partners to create a new training exercise or video clip I ask: “Is there a new and better way to do what is currently working for us?” I purposely look for different methods—even when what we are currently employing works well for us. That doesn’t mean we throw everything out, but we do try to make at least a couple of changes in what we’ve previously done—on principle alone. Force yourself to make changes, even during good times. It keeps you on the creative edge.

Seek the Common. Imagine that you’re brainstorming solutions to a problem (an important act of creativity) and you feel as if you’re in a rut. You want to think outside the box, but aren’t sure how to do so. First, identify the box by asking: “What do all of our current suggestions have in common?” That common feature comprises your primary mental constraint. Remember the engineering students? All of their ideas used a brick to build a structure. To break the invisible wall you’d ask them: “Can you think of a use other than building a structure? Okay, that’s good. Now all of the ideas use the mass of the brick. Is there something that doesn’t use the mass?” Whenever you’re trapped in a mental box, one question can get you out. “What do all these suggestions have in common?”

Try, Try, Again.  Yesterday, I went to a movie that turned out to be a real clunker. The sad truth is that far too many movies aren’t all that good because they have to be completely finished before they’re shown to the viewing public. Just think of the magnitude of this challenge. The work of dozens of people at the cost of millions of dollars is combined into a finished product, released with a flurry of ads, and if it’s accepted, it’s accepted; but if not—it’s quickly yanked from the big screen.

Contrast this process with a speech you’ve been asked to give to several audiences. You design and deliver your first speech. Some parts go well, others don’t, so you make changes. The second speech goes better. By the time you give the speech the tenth time, it’s a polished gem. Here’s the point. Treat your creative efforts as speeches, not movies. Quit producing completed and polished work and then testing it with your audience in one grand ta-da! Instead, create and then test sample material with sample audiences. Conduct a half dozen mini-experiments before you even think of working on the finished product.

Swallow Your Pride. This final idea springs out of the previous one. As much as most of us would love to produce a wonderfully novel and successful product all on our own, we’d do well to swallow our pride and quit trying to go it alone. Sure, Isaac Newton, with the release of Principia, stunned an entire world through his solo efforts. He alone came up with answers as to why the planets and other heavenly objects act the way they do.

Now, with this example in mind (and this is what people often think of when they talk about creativity with a capital C), consider the following simple fact. The rest of us are not now nor will we ever be an Isaac Newton. We need to drop our standard—our work isn’t likely to be world-changing and we’re very unlikely to do it alone. So, when coming up with new ideas and methods, seek not solitude, but a crowd. Brainstorm with colleagues. Continually ask people for feedback along the way. Give up on the idea of surprising others with a blazing and unexpected flash of insight. Instead, clunk along, hammer away, talk with others, and continually reshape your work—with a little bit of help from your friends.

Crucial Conversations QA

Responding to Cheap Shots and Personal Attacks

Dear Crucial Skills,

I am a frontline supervisor of people from all different walks of life and from several different countries. A term we use and teach our staff is cultural diversity. It is part of our everyday lives, as we constantly interact with customers and staff who are “not from here.” We try to be courteous of their customs and make them feel comfortable in our society.

Unfortunately, it seems we do not receive the same treatment. Instead, we hear berating of our culture and beliefs. As a proud American, I have a hard time with people who ridicule my culture. But as a frontline supervisor, I have to tell my staff to be courteous regardless of what is said. How do we best deal with these people who are hostile toward our staff while maintaining respect for their cultural differences?

Red, White, and Blue

Dear Red,

First, on behalf of all of us who frequently run into belligerent, defensive, and uncaring customer service, let me congratulate you and your team on your desire to serve in a caring and professional way. Your efforts are particularly notable given that you often serve under hostile circumstances.

When you work with a clientele that seems particularly bent on pointing out our country’s weak underbelly, it can indeed be annoying. With time and repeated exposure to unrelenting, unsolicited and often irrelevant criticism, you feel as if you need to speak up. After all, it can feel disloyal to just sit there and take it. Saying nothing is the same as agreeing—or so it seems. So out of a deep sense of loyalty to all that you hold dear, you finally speak up, set the record straight, or otherwise wave the flag. But due to the emotional nature of the topic, you come across as defensive and risk offending your customer.

I have personally found a way to come to peace with this challenge. First and foremost, I realize that America has broad shoulders. She can take whatever is dealt her. I don’t need to defend her because she does fine on her own. Second, one of the freedoms we hold dear is our freedom of speech. When I hear people making fun of something—sometimes something I value greatly—I try to see it as a fine display of free speech. This makes it a good thing. Of course, when the verbal attack is part of the daily discourse between fellow citizens, I do respond to the criticism and do my best to engage in what I hope is a healthy discourse.

I also play an important message in my head every time someone takes a shot at something I value. I ask myself, “Am I going to solve this problem by picking up the argument?” That is, will I either (1) fix the problem or (2) get others to understand why they’re wrong?

For instance, a student from Australia who took a class from me last year approached me during the break and stated, “You know what’s wrong with American food and particularly American restaurants?” I wasn’t sure so I took the bait.

“I give, what’s wrong?”

He told me. “Every restaurant has the same menu—you’ve got your filet, your obligatory mashed potatoes, and an overcooked vegetable.”

While there are actually many restaurants with very different menus, there was some truth to what he said. And I quickly realized that nothing I would say in defense would change the restaurants he was referring to. So I smiled and said, “You got that right.”

Occasionally you’ll have a lengthy and caring relationship with someone who constantly takes cheap shots at something you value, with no intention of having honest dialogue. Under these circumstances you might want to speak up. For example, as I got to know the Australian student better, I cared about him enough to say something about his unrelenting attack on the U.S.

One day, after he made fun of snow cones, I said, “You know, when I traveled in Australia, people would often ask me what I thought of their country. At first I thought they wanted to know the whole picture. I’d tell them how much I enjoyed X, Y, and Z, but didn’t care for A, B, and C. I soon learned they wanted to hear what I liked. Nothing more. We were making small talk, not setting a national political agenda. So I learned to focus on the good. It made me feel better, it made others feel better, and it didn’t grate on the relationship.” He smiled at me, said “I hear you,” and from that moment on stopped ridiculing America in front of me.

But he was a friend, not a customer. With customers, take comfort in knowing that your quiet smile, friendly service, and lack of defensiveness is part of what makes you and your organization great. You offer up a particularly fine gift when you allow others to speak their concerns openly and freely. Your silence doesn’t imply agreement. It demonstrates your confidence in a system that largely works. So meet with your team and thank them for doing the right thing—serving their customers, even when they make it hard. Praise them for their patience and mature attitude. Continue to take the high road.

One final point. If someone is personally abusive of one of your employees, that’s simply unacceptable and needs to be addressed as a separate problem. Customers have responsibilities too, and one of them is to treat others with respect. But I’m assuming that most of the sharp-tongue comments you referred to aren’t aimed at any one person—just the country, and well, she can take it.

Respectfully yours,
Kerry Patterson