Problematic underperformers – the dog must wag the tail!

As the first day of a conference broke up, attendees moved to the venue’s bar to network, gossip, and share thoughts about the day’s sessions. A young project manager, however, sat alone in the venue’s lounge looking as if the world rested on their shoulders. The youngster smiled weakly and raised a hand in recognition as the Badger walked by. ‘Why so glum?’ the Badger asked before sitting down in an adjacent chair. ‘An underperformer is proving to be a problem that’s jeopardising the success of my project’ came the morose response.

The youngster explained that a person on a team on the critical path of the project was seriously underperforming, proving impossible to manage, and putting at risk the timely completion of contractual deliverables. The person had apparently been troublesome from the outset, but their team colleagues were now vocally grumbling because this individual was always late for work, always left on time at the end of the day with their work unfinished, and always blamed others for their poor productivity and low quality output. The individual also complained about everything! Performance management processes were in progress, but the person was using every nuance, ambiguity, and avenue for defence in the system to frustrate their execution. The young project manager asked if the Badger had any thoughts.  

The Badger stated that a rule of thumb which had stood him in good stead throughout his career was that ~10% of individuals on a project were underperformers.  Most were good people who were either in a role unsuited to their talents, or juggling with challenging personal or family situations, or both. Most did not poison a team’s spirit or damage overall output. A small proportion of underperformers, however, were truly work-shy individuals, with poor capability and often obtuse personalities, and somehow they had slipped through in the company recruitment processes. These individuals often distracted management, poisoned morale, and destroyed team spirit and the productivity needed for a team and project to succeed. The Badger said that he’d learned that these individuals must be dealt with by those in leadership positions in line with formal processes, but swiftly and decisively if positive project dynamics were to be preserved.

The youngster whined that diversity, harassment, and anti-discrimination policies made their ability to take swift, decisive, action more difficult. The Badger shook his head and simply reinforced two points, namely that a) their primary responsibility was to deliver to their client on time, to budget, and in line with their contract, and b) that allowing a poison apple to infect the fruit in the whole barrel was a leadership failure!

Later that evening the youngster bought the Badger a drink in the bar and said they’d made some phone calls and removed the problematic individual from the project. ‘I’ve learned’, they said, ‘that leadership involves decisions, judgements, and the dog wagging the tail, not vice-versa!’  Quite!


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