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The Myth of Average

There’s no such thing as an average leader. Or employee. Neutral impact is a myth.

One is either a multiplier in the organization or one is actively destroying value.

In some ways I think this dichotomy is fairly obvious to most managers. But why then do so many net-negative employees seem to remain in their jobs far longer than they should?

Bad employees are even worse than you think

One of the main reasons bad employees stick around (even in good organizations) is because it’s easy to overlook just how detrimental their impact is.

The rest of this post tells you exactly why a bad employee is even worse than you think. It boils down to four categories:

  • Their direct output
  • How they impact you as a leader
  • The influence on teams and individuals that they work with them
  • Opportunity costs that are less visible and thus easier to ignore and underestimate

Basic Principle #1: No Employee Works in a Vacuum

Basically, everyone knows the blue employee down below is either a positive or negative for their manager (that’s you in grey by the way. Congrats on making it to the top of the zoomed in org chart).

But few people really think through the math for how that good or bad cascades through the broader network of your company, customers, suppliers etc.

Bottom line: a multiplier will have an exponential impact on the network while a negative contributor will drag the entire place down.




The direct mechanisms of negativity

Your negative-impact employee represents a direct drag on the overall productivity and health of your organization. How?

1) Below Average Work, Expensively Done

First, there is the sub-par or average work, slow pace of execution, and lack of creativity that you have to put up with.

As a manager you always know which team member’s work you have to check or who you too often cover for with excessive intervention to improve the end quality of their deliverables.

Quite simply, this person isn’t running on their own and making things happen. And you know it. You’re covering for them.

The easiest way to self-check if you have these people is to think about whether there are people on your team that you wouldn’t go to when the game is on the line. Do you? And if you do, why are they still there?

2) Draining the Surrounding Team – Literally and Emotionally

The second impact of a poor performer comes from the strain they put on the immediate team.

Good teammates will pick up the slack. This limits the time and attention they can pay to what they need to do.

The impact on these teammates is not just about limiting their own output though. The deeper damage here is emotional.

You see, while sacrifice in an environment of mutual respect tends to deepen our commitment to a cause (think the Marines), the same sacrifice in an environment where reciprocity isn’t reflected back sows the seed of division.

Basically your poor performer will spread burnout, especially if the sacrifice of others isn’t acknowledged.

3) Diluting the Focus on those who are Great

Danny Meyer (founder of Shake Shack) says that an organization grows towards where you shine the light.

Best case a poor performer blocks light from reaching others. It’s usually much worse than that though.

If a leader is blind (or just perceived to be blind/indifferent) to a lack of performance than the contagion will really begin to spread. It’s at this point that an infection goes truly viral.

Generally this “out-of-touch” feeling begins when someone at the top of the food chain thinks, “our KPI or end result was hit so it must be OK right?”

No, no it is not.

People always know who is a positive and who is a negative and if the multipliers perceive that you are not on the same page or that you are not taking action it is over.

Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon. I promise. Your results will deteriorate and your best people will leave.

If that message isn’t clear enough here’s a visual to show what it feels like for your stars when they see a negative-impact employee getting ahead:


It’s not pretty is it?

The Opportunity Costs of an “Average” Employee

1) Talent attracts talent, and non-talent repels it

There’s plenty of literature out there about A players hiring/working with A players, while B players hire C players and so on so I won’t re-hash that here. But it’s true. That “future employee” shown up above–it’s your job to go find them, recruit them, and then show them whose example to follow.

It’s also easy to underestimate the opportunity cost of what “great” looks like in the current seat occupied by your sub-par teammate. Don’t fall guilty of linear thinking, there are too many multiplier people you could go and hire out there:


2) Sustained Success Requires Adaptive Learning 

The only thing that’s certain is uncertainty. After all, can you predict with certainty what the next two quarters will require from you in order to make your company succeed? The answer is “No.”

The truth is your sub-par employee isn’t going to adapt quickly enough when major change comes around. When the terrain shifts you’ll be stuck in tactical mode handling an employee overwhelmed by day-to-day responsibilities instead of managing through the situation strategically.

You need people who will thrive in uncertainty and who will free you up not drag you down.



3) Average is Short Term by Definition

Non-multiplier employees tend to think about delivering short term results that make them look good and address their underlying insecurities vs. initiating projects that will take a longer time to unfold but could potentially shape your organization. This is a classic trap.

In Summary: It’s on You

You cannot allow anyone to undermine the standard.

Culture is a force for good or for bad. If people see average work being accepted they will wonder if their effort to be exceptional is worth it. You will receive frustration, perceive a deterioration in will, and eventually if they stick around long enough (and most won’t) you will see their own standards start to go. You cannot afford any of that.

Last, know that this person will also reflect directly on you. Regardless of how good a job you are doing individually your team members will begin to associate the (lack of) performance of this sub-par person with your leadership.

Guess what?

They are right to do so.

If you’re going to be a multiplier you have to hold the line and enforce the standard. Otherwise you’re the negative blue dude in the graph.

Because it’s all on you.

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Last modified: March 18, 2019