Some surveys suggest managers spend up to a day each week managing their poorest performers. This is despite receiving only marginal gains in productivity from this group. In uncertain financial times, can you really afford to prioritise your strugglers – or is it better to invest in your stars?

According to McKinsey research (Harvard Business Review, 2002), successful organisations focus on attracting and keeping high or ‘A and B’ performers. More importantly, their policies actively push out low or ‘C’ performers; particularly managers who negatively affect team performance.

Recent Eagle Hill Consulting research confirms this by finding strugglers drag down overall morale: new ideas and originality begin to falter, and mediocrity becomes the norm. High performers become antagonised as their workload increases and achievements are ignored. If they feel compelled to leave, your organisation loses their knowledge, productivity wanes and you face recruitment, training and set-up costs for new staff.

Hold on to your high performers through the right incentives

In a 2009 study examining retention rates, researchers from the Universities of Kentucky and Minnesota found that good reward programmes including training, pay and other benefits often encouraged both high and low performers to stay.

However, creating a high performance culture (with programmes that set clear employer expectations and then linked rewards) kept high performers around and encouraged low performers to leave. This was because low performers found it easier to work in places with less ‘monitoring’, while high performers felt motivated and thrived.

Supporting your high performers means giving them targeted positive feedback and creating an environment that helps them fly. Do they have the resources and tools they need? Are there any barriers holding them back? Too much red tape, slow flow of information, incorrect inputs or lacklustre processing times? Find ways to recognise their contributions and create high-performing behaviours within your team.

Can you turn the ship around?

Perhaps your business does not have the cash to lose anybody right now. Maybe your sense of fair play won’t let you give up on low performers. First, as Ken Nowack suggests, work out whether the person is struggling with a lack of knowledge, skills or motivation. Then put in place a performance management plan (limited to one to three months) with well-defined expectations along with the consequences of any underperformance.

Provide targeted coaching but use your time wisely: try short ‘stand up’ meetings twice a day where you work on set outcomes and provide specific feedback. As Dr. Marty Martin recommends, focus on improving the strengths that can be used to tackle vulnerable areas.

If there is no improvement then unfortunately you will need to let these employees go. If you must keep people on due to staff shortages, consider reassigning them to an area that limits the impact on other high-performing staff or is not customer-facing.

Play the law of averages

Don’t overlook the sizeable gains you can make by focusing on your ‘middle of the curve’ performers and taking them to the next level. Share any tips you’ve gleaned from your high performers to boost learning with the whole team.

Ask your stars to be ‘buddies’ to team members or set up a shadowing system. Play the law of averages: if you are able to substantially improve the performance of up to 70 per cent of your team, this is far more powerful than aiming for smaller increases from your stars or strugglers.

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