Try a finer brush-stroke

Not all your people are glossy high-flyers, so how do you keep the working majority fresh and bright, and tackle the dismal few who hold the firm back?

by John Morrish
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Managing talent is one thing, but how do you deal with those people who just don't come into that category? Flattering though it may be to refer to all your staff as your talent, it's a misuse of the word, popularised in show-business, where soft-soap is endemic.

Talent is really an exceptional natural aptitude or ability. Not everyone in business life can demonstrate that; nor should they. Anna-Marie Detert, a senior consultant with HR specialists Towers Perrin, uses a musical metaphor. ‘You can't have an orchestra full of soloists,' she says. ‘The bulk of the people who make up the orchestra, more than 70%, are people who keep the business running.' In any organisation, she says, 10%-15% of the workforce are likely to be outstanding performers. Another 5%-10% will present a serious problem.

The rest will be working at an acceptable level, but many managers tend to neglect them. ‘You need to keep these people around - you can't function without them. They are critical to your business,' says Detert. Not only do you need to retain such people - the magnolia majority - you need them to care about the organisation and commit themselves to its success. Research by Towers Perrin around the world unearthed the key factors that foster those attitudes.

For British employees, the most important factor - even beyond the opportunity to acquire new skills and do challenging work - is the sense that senior management are interested in them. That comes when executives make themselves visible: visiting shops, factories and offices, walking and talking, or holding lunch-and-learn sessions where relatively junior staff can meet the CEO.

Grand gestures are rarely necessary: ‘employee of the month' schemes died long ago through lack of interest. But paying attention to such routine matters as the parking arrangements or the office Christmas party is always appreciated. It doesn't always come easily. ‘Some senior managers cannot find it in themselves to care about people,' admits Detert. ‘But they can show it in their behaviour, and that's more meaningful.'

Motivation expert Shaun Belding, author of Winning with the Employee from Hell, agrees. ‘The number one thing employees want is appreciation, a pat on the back and a thank-you-very-much. You don't have to fawn over people; you just have to say: "That was really nice." That will keep people going for a month. You can lay praise on people thicker than paint on an old cottage. I've never had anybody come up to me and say: "I hate that guy, he says too many nice things about me."'

People need clarity about their role in the workplace too. ‘We have had years of management by objectives and target-setting, and these are all wonderful things,' says Doug Crawford of HR consultants Chiumento, whose research suggests that 16% of employees underperform. ‘But for a lot of people there's still an ambiguity about what's expected of them. Quite often, we put people into a position and let them get on with it.'

If they have the right skills, on the other hand, they expect to be allowed to exercise them. ‘If we reduce the scope and discretion of people to do their jobs,' adds Crawford, ‘they'll just get switched off.'

So much for the quietly competent. The 5%-10% of difficult and underperforming employees present greater difficulties. In some cases, discipline and eventual dismissal are the obvious solution. HR professionals employ a range of euphemisms for this process, and are invariably convinced that it's for the employee's own good. ‘There are some people who are probably better off being set free,' comments Belding.

Agrees Detert: ‘Some people you do need to exit out of the organisation. They'd be much happier in a different environment.' Belding is based in Canada, and Detert is an American based in London. We natives may be less sanguine about what is often a traumatic experience for both sides. Crawford at Chiumento sees disciplinary action as the last resort, to be avoided in all but the most extreme cases. Instead, managers need to develop the habit of having ‘more open, honest, constructive conversations with people'.

He elaborates: ‘We are very good at not confronting issues. We're not so good at giving or receiving feedback. We tend to avoid the issues until it becomes a major problem.' As managers, we fear confrontation and conflict; as employees, we have a remarkable capacity for not hearing what people are saying to us.

For Detert, the difficult minority come in three categories. People who have marketable skills but not the skills you need are best ‘managed out', gently, with counselling and career advice. ‘You want them to speak positively about you when they have moved on,' she says. Those who just don't have the skills can be retrained. The third group is the most intractable: those with attitude problems.

‘Attitudes are very deep-seated,' adds Detert. ‘Some people have a chip on their shoulder, and it may have to do with their family background.' The answer is frank, unambiguous feedback. The trick here is to depersonalise the discussion, to deal in specifics, to present evidence of the negative consequences their behaviour and attitudes have caused. After that, they can either adapt their behaviour or march towards the door marked Exit.

Says Belding: ‘Most people are taken aback when they realise what they are doing.' He recommends what he calls the ‘manure sandwich': wrapping the criticism between two slices of praise. ‘We need a firm but gentle hand. As managers, we are no different to parents: we don't stick to our guns. Most managers don't follow through. But the best bosses you had were never the most lenient ones.' Underperformance, he believes, is one of those areas where managers need to take a long, hard look in the mirror. You can dismiss someone, but you must always analyse how the wrong person came to be in the wrong slot. ‘Otherwise you are going to make the same mistake, and you'll make it over and over again.'

Unfortunately, not all of us are equally good in this area. ‘A lot of managers are selected on the basis of their technical skills and expertise, as opposed to their people skills,' says Crawford. ‘A lot of managers are there for the wrong reasons. We need to hold managers accountable for the management part of their role.

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