For the Poor Performer, Danger Doesn’t Exist

Are you a leader who values responsibility, fairness and kindness? If you hire well, you might have a long, successful and fun career. But when you make a bad hire, you may hate being the boss.

If you lead with the values mentioned, one of the hard times you’ll face is when you need to challenge an under-performing team member. This post’s aim is to help you understand your concern may not make it onto that employee’s radar screen.

No matter how uncomfortable you get telling him his job is at risk, he may not realize he is in trouble.

Performance Challenge:  The Disinterested Brain

Some people are “learners” (my term) with a growth mindset and others are “actors” (my term) with a fixed mindset. So says psychologist Carol Dweck.

Learners are self-aware and strive to improve themselves and their performance. A learner will recognize her mistakes and self correct. She will seek feedback and is open to criticism. If her performance is lacking, she will fix it before you notice. Thus, learners are rarely “problem employees.”

Growth (Learner) Mindset vs. Fixed (Actor) Mindset

Growth (Learner) Mindset vs.
Fixed (Actor) Mindset

In Dweck’s model, “actors” do not believe improvement is possible. With his fixed mindset, the actor seeks roles where he can succeed. He avoids those where mistakes or failure are a big risk.

Top performing employees who are “actors” may hate criticism and lack self-awareness. “Actors” may blame their mistakes on others. But a talented actor performs well because his talent carries the day.

That leaves us with the poor performing actor. This employee will probably believe he is doing fine. One reason the poor performing actor believes he’s doing fine is because of the human brain’s design. That wiring keeps a poor performer oblivious to how bad he is doing and unaware of his risk of getting fired.

Unseen Danger

Daniel Gilbert

Daniel Gilbert

In a 2006 article, Harvard Psychology Professor Daniel Gilbert reviewed ways our brain’s design has us ignore most modern threats.

According to Gilbert:

  1. We respond if we see a human source acting against us.
  2. We respond to morally upsetting behavior.
  3. We respond to physical objects coming at us.
  4. We respond to fast changes in light, sound, temperature, pressure, size & weight.

Enter the Responsible, Kind and Fair Boss

But when a responsible+kind+fair (RKF) boss sits down with an employee to discuss the problem, there is no evil plot. There is no enemy scheming to destroy the employee, her career or family. The problem is the employee’s actions or inaction.

Positive Illusions We're All Above Average

Positive Illusions
We’re All Above Average

As for the RKF leader, he is trying to communicate his concern while being responsible, kind and fair. He doesn’t want to upset the employee.

Likewise, per Gilbert’s point about morally objective behavior, we can forget about that.  Most people rate themselves as better-than-average drivers, parents and better-than-average workers. In the problem employee’s mind, he is doing his best. He is above average.

Nor does the prospect of getting fired pose a concrete threat today. At most, it’s an abstract idea about something that might happen someday to someone else. This is especially true with an RKF boss. When that boss had their version of a tough conversation, that boss didn’t use words like “fired” or “terminated.”

As for the imminent risk of losing her job, the conversation wasn’t a confrontation at all. For the employee, It was just another complaint that won’t matter.

Invisible Danger

The net result? Between our brain’s design and an RKF leader’s tendency to avoid confrontations, danger is not perceived. And if something isn’t perceived it’s as though it didn’t happen.

RKF or No-Nonsense?

Before we go further, let’s find out if you’re an RKF or a no-nonsense leader. I invite you to take a tiny survey about your approach to managing problem employees.

In my next post, I’ll share the results to see if we learn anything.

Click here to take the survey.




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