This Tango Takes Three!

By Balaji Krishnamurthy written about 1 year ago

This month’s article is an attempt to change the conversation with a non-performing employee from one of blame to one of collective responsibility.  We are happy to point out that, in keeping with the provocative nature of these articles, there is probably plenty here with which you might take issue.  We welcome your critical review.

We start with our definition of Stewardship, as offered by our friend Glenn Mangurian: the responsibility to protect, preserve and enhance assets that do not belong to you but have been temporarily entrusted to you.

As an employer and a manager, you have been entrusted with the human capital asset of your employees.  You have a responsibility to protect, preserve and enhance that asset.  You must leave behind a richer set of assets at the end of the year than what you inherited at the beginning of the year.  We discussed this in recent articles on performance reviews (Employee Performance is not just about Results and Put an End to the Annual Performance Review).

In this article, we discuss the implications of this stewardship responsibility. When you hire an employee, you are making a commitment that you will grow this employee to be a richer person each year – not just financially richer, but richer in their craft, in their profession and as a human being.  You, as an employer, are accepting this obligation, knowing everything you know about this employee you just hired.  So, in a job interview with this potential employee, not only should you ask if the individual can perform the duties of that job, you must also ask if you have the skills to enrich the individual, if your company has the capacity to enrich the individual, and if the individual has the potential and willingness to be enriched.  It takes the combined efforts of the employee, the manager and the company for the individual to be enriched. In other words, it takes three to tango.

Does every employee have to grow each year?  What is wrong with Joe, the welder in the machine shop who just wants to be a welder?  Joe is a darn good welder. That is what he wants to be, he doesn’t want to do anything else, and I want to keep him. Joe is happy.  He gets a good paycheck.  He has a good life.  Joe has been with me for a decade and I want to keep him for a couple more until he retires.  What is the problem with that approach?  Why shouldn’t I just let Joe be?

Well, there are actually two problems: The first is an economics issue and the second is a philosophical issue.  Your company is expected to grow and improve each year.  Not only is your revenue expected to grow, but you are expected to generate at least as much profit per dollar of revenue in spite of your expenses growing with inflation.  How do you do that?  By doing what you used to do even better and more of it.  This economic reality requires each individual in your company to do more and do it better each year.  So, you can’t just let Joe be.  Joe has to become a better welder each year, weld more per unit of time, weld it for a lower cost, etc.  But, wait a minute.  Is it possible to do that forever?  Don’t you reach a point where Joe is performing at maximum capacity and it cannot be done any better?  When you and your employees peak, your company peaks as well.

The second problem is philosophical.  An attitude of “let Joe be” instills a level of complacency that will permeate the entire organization.  If you let Joe be content with doing what he did last year, you have to let the entire company be content with what they did last year.  Will that be acceptable to you?  Your organization’s excellent performance this year must become the benchmark of mediocrity for tomorrow.  So, as a company philosophy you must require each employee to grow each year.

Now for a bit of reconciliation.  Growing each year does not mean that Joe has to become a supervisor.  Each employee has to constantly grow in his or her craft and profession.  Even better, each employee should constantly expand their skills, knowledge and interest into related disciplines – neighboring disciplines to their craft and profession, neighboring disciplines of interest to the employee, and neighboring disciplines of relevance to the company.  This growth responsibility falls on all three parties: the employee, the manager and the company.  Although, in this day and age, no company guarantees lifetime employment, collectively, the three parties should guarantee lifetime employability.

How well do most companies fare on this score?  Most companies will philosophically accept this position at the point of hiring an employee, but they quickly back pedal within a few years.  Let’s point out four typical scenarios that companies and employees face.

First, a non-controversial and positive scenario is the performing employee with a growth trajectory.  This is the case of an individual that performs exceedingly well.  The individual grows in their job, takes on new and expanding assignments, assumes greater responsibilities and is generally successful.  The employee, the manager and the company all discharge their stewardship responsibility.  Well, that was the easy scenario where the dance and the music make for a beautiful tango.

The second scenario, still positive but uncomfortably so, is the performing employee for whom the company cannot offer the needed growth opportunity.  This employee performs very well.  He or she grows in their job.  The individual is critical to the company.  The boss depends on this individual.  After a few years, the employee needs new assignments or additional responsibilities in order to grow.  But, in your small company, there are limited growth opportunities.  You just don’t have that next position for this employee.  They are ready for it, but you are not.  What should you do?  What is your stewardship responsibility?  The company has a responsibility to act selflessly and work with such individuals to position them for their next career growth opportunity, which will likely happen elsewhere (see Small Companies Must Turnover Good People). The employee, the manager and the company are usually hesitant to face this situation.  And, in that hesitancy, all three fail to be a steward.  In this tango, the music stops but the dancing continues without the gusto.

The third scenario represents the performing employee whose personal growth does not keep up with the market and environmental growth.  This is where many companies get stuck with a “used-to-be-performing” employee who hasn’t kept up with the fact that you don’t use a calculator anymore but have to make an Excel spreadsheet.  As in the case of Joe, the welder, this is an employee whose consistent excellent performance many years ago has slowly but surely become below mediocre by today’s standards.  Who is at fault?  All three: the employee, the manager and the company have been complicit in allowing the employee not to grow.  In this tango the manager and the company have moved on to the new song but the employee is still dancing to the old song.

Finally, the fourth scenario involves a non-performing employee.  The company and the manager often ignore the non-performance as an act of kindness when, in fact, it is gross negligence of their stewardship responsibility.  When you hired that individual, you accepted a stewardship obligation to grow that individual.  You have two options: either to discharge that stewardship responsibility or absolve yourself of that obligation.  You do not have the choice to ignore it.  If you approach the conversation with the attitude, “I (the manager) am unable to find ways, and create an environment in which, you can grow as an individual,” then the conversation becomes less about blame or judgment and more about stewardship.  Both the music and the dancing stops in this tango.

You, as a manager, have an obligation called stewardship and a privilege called management authority.  The former requires you to care for your assets.  The latter allows you to acquire and dispose of your assets.  The more diligently you discharge your stewardship responsibility, the more impenitently you can exercise your management authority.  But, remember, this tango takes three.