Firing your weakest link won’t help your team

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“Take a moment now to reflect on the performance of each team member. Think of the lowest-performing team member. By default, that person’s level of performance sets the standard for acceptable performance on your team–it’s the performance level that you as the leader allow. It’s a very public and visible standard regardless of how much we might want to sweep it under the rug or turn a blind eye to it. (Lee Colan)

Every team has one.  It’s the person who is always behind on their work, always arguing with the other team members, always making the meetings go long and the accomplishments come up short. They are your weakest link.

Teams have become an important part of our business strategies.  They enable us to pool ideas, distribute work, and provide redundancy for critical tasks.  With so much riding on the success of your team, it is extra frustrating when that team comes up a little short of its goals because of one weak team member.  As a team leader seeking to make your team as successful as possible, it can be tempting to “trim the dead wood” and replace a weaker team member with someone new who seems to have stronger skills, but there are cultural implications to that decision that you should consider closely before making that move.

  • Reinforcing the Blame Game: Once you pin a team failure on one member, you establish that blaming one team member is acceptable whenever the team hits a bump in the road.  If you do take the step of firing that weak link, it is only a matter of time before the team hits another bump, and the fingers will start pointing again.  Playing the blame game undermines trust between team members, and that means …
  • Sabotaging Collaboration: If the team members don’t trust each other, they won’t work together.  Instead, everyone will want to work in their individual silos, and that just throws all those team benefits (more skills, more ideas, distribution of work) completely out the window.  In short, if they won’t work together, they aren’t a team anymore.
  • Creating Added Stress: Fearing blame and being afraid to trust your teammates leaves your team members in a constant state of paranoia — who is going to point the finger at them? What happens if you hit a problem you can’t solve yourself? Who can you turn to for help? Stressed and fearful team members are not the most productive.
  • Replacing one type of delay for another: Lastly, removing a team member who already knows the goals and the project means having to bring a new team member up to speed.  Depending on the complexity of the project, this could cause a substantial delay in the project schedule (and set your new team member up to be the next victim of the blame game in the mean time.)

“You talk to your boss about the underperformer and explain how things are falling through the cracks. Your boss acts on this information and fires the underperformer. Your anxiety with respect to the issue goes down because you don’t have to deal with it anymore, but your fear of separation goes up because you start to worry that this could also happen to you.” (Eric Coryell)

So what DO you do when you have a difficult team member?  Here are some strategies to consider before you reach for your axe:

  • Evaluate whether is it motivation or education: B Yes, sometimes you get someone who just does not seem to be motivated to work in the team’s best interests; but more often the issue lies in a lack of knowledge.  Is this person doing something they’ve never done before?  Does it require technical or even social skills that they’ve never exercised? Many people are afraid to admit they don’t know how to do something. Determining that your weak link can be strengthened with some education means fixing your current project AND making a stronger team member for future projects.
  • Review ALL team member expectations: It may seem silly, but you would be surprised how much team expectations can vary.  For example, when is it ok to offer your opinion to your teammate on their work, and when is it not? Are your team meetings for reviewing and changing the project course, or are they just status checks for a fixed course? What needs to be perfect (so it’s ok to spend extra time on it) and what doesn’t? If team expectations haven’t been clarified, then there is going to be friction, and it will be hard to say who is right and who is not.
  • Verify your incentives are right: This applies at two levels:
    1. Have you established an incentive for your teammates to help each other?  Are they rewarded for sharing information or for helping each other solve problems? If your recognition (and rewards) are being offered only for individual achievement, then there is little incentive to share that spotlight.
    2. Different individuals are motived by different incentives.  While one person might be perfectly happy with a bonus check, another might want some of his long hours back in comp time instead. When it comes time to celebrate success with the team, is the reward something that all your team members (including your weakest link) will value? Or can you accommodate different rewards for the different members?

I’m not going to say that you will never have to fire a team member, but taking the time to motivate, educate and set expectations will strengthen your relations with the team as a whole, and that will ensure a stronger team with or without the weakest link.

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