Get more from your employees

Drake Editorial Team

Average isn't good enough anymore, not in this competitive environment. If you accept average performance from your employees, you're doing your company a huge disservice. So why do so many of us mutely accept mediocre performance? Perhaps it is because raising the bar isn't easy; taking corrective action can be unpleasant; and if you haven't done any of this before, it may not be clear how or where to begin.

One place to begin is examining performance in your organization using the 20–60–20 percent rule. In nearly any employee group, 20% are strong performers, 60% are average performers, 20% are weak performers.

You have three possible places to begin, but which one's most critical? Your strong performers are already doing fine under your current management, so don't waste time fixing what isn't broken. We'll come back to them later. That leaves your average performers — your majority — and your weak performers, a smaller but more dangerous group. With whom do you start, and what do you do?

The good news is you can kill two birds with one stone. When you start vigorously managing your weakest employees, it makes a bigger impact on your next group up, the average workers.

If you aren't taking action against underperforming employees — who are unproductive or come in late and waste time or perhaps don't come in at all, the message you send to your average workers is that there are no consequences for poor performance. Remember, your employees are well aware of one another's behaviour, even if management pretends not to notice. This fosters a culture of apathy and negativity, which drags everyone down.

On the other hand, if you start holding underperformers accountable, many of your average employees may just step it up a notch, all by themselves.

You have a number of ways to manage poorly performing employees. Start by creating job descriptions and performance standards for everyone — a step too many small employers overlook. Job descriptions are incredibly useful tools: telling employees what's expected of them; giving you a standard for measuring performance, a must at raise and bonus time; and protecting employers against wrongful termination suits because they are a specific tool for documenting problems.

If employees aren't performing well in their job, determine why. If it is a training issue, make training available, and you may solve the problem. If they are good workers but poorly suited to the job, see if there's a more appropriate role for them elsewhere in the company. Or if they simply have very poor work habits and you cannot possibly motivate them to improve their performance, you need to do the toughest thing of all —  terminate them.

Neutron Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, is famous for his extreme managerial practices. In the 1980s, Welch insisted that each year, all department managers rank their personnel and eliminate the bottom 10% of workers. His theory was that it raises performance expectations and keeps everyone — even stellar employees — on their toes. Fear of losing one's job is a powerful motivation.

While Welch's practice was radical, it is also dangerously radical to keep non-performers on board: Plain and simple, they are hurting your business. Cut them loose, and you'll send ripples throughout your organization, shaking up other non-performers and prodding average employees to aim higher. As a bonus, you'll boost morale among your top performers, because it shows that you're paying attention and that you value good work.

According to an old Icelandic proverb, "Mediocrity is climbing molehills without sweating." If you want to climb mountains, not molehills, develop a zero tolerance for mediocrity. Use the 20–60–20 percent rule to keep your employees moving upward.

Reprinted with the permission of Ray Silverstein, President of PRO, Presidents Resource Organization, a network of peer advisory boards for small-business owners and author of The Best Secrets of Great Small Businesses and Small Business Survival Guide: How to Survive (and Thrive) in Tough Times. 1 800 818-0150 or ray@propres.com.


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