Problem Performers “Cruising” Denial

This is the second in a series of posts looking at the sticky combination of two elements.  Element #1 is a problem performer.  Element #2 is a big-hearted leader.

In the first installment, I cited Daniel Gilbert’s summary of what factors trigger human beings to recognize danger.  With that brain “wiring,” poor performers probably will not realize they’re in danger of getting fired.

In this post, I’ll add another wrinkle:  denial.

Cruise Ship Denial

Relax, (insert denial) it's just an electrical problem.

Relax, (insert denial) it’s just an electrical problem.

In 2012, the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia (right) hit some rocks when it cruised too close to…the rocks. With a hole in its hull, the engine room flooded, knocking out the ship’s lighting system.

After “30 seconds of violent shaking like an earthquake,” the ship began tilting to one side.  A message was broadcast via the PA system that there was nothing wrong except for an electrical fault. A few minutes later, the passengers were encouraged to stay put. There would be other messages that everything was fine.

Things look bad, but add some denial and everything seems OK

With the sudden impact, noise, shaking and ship listing, Gilbert would expect passengers to have sensed danger.

Instead, many passengers did little more than wonder what happened. Why? Denial. The ship’s captain, and in turn his crew, denied the danger and made reassuring announcements to the passengers. This set the stage for passenger confusion and denial of the danger. So until the situation got completely out of control, few did much to seek safety.

In Case of Danger… Try Denial and Be Happy

The bottom 10% — even below the denial zone.

The bottom 10% — even below the denial zone.

According to Ben Sherwood in The Survivors Club, faced with a threat, people follow a predictable pattern:

  • 10% respond like the idiots in Dumb and Dumber. They’ll do something to get themselves killed.
  • 10% respond like James Bond — calm, focused and action oriented.
  • The other 80% will deny the danger. Some will convince themselves things aren’t too bad. Some will be in total denial.

In the last post, we learned poor performers won’t realize their jobs are at risk; they won’t recognize the danger.

Today we add that even if aware of possible danger, 80% will deny that danger. They will minimize and rationalize. They will convince themselves everything is OK.

This is especially true with the responsible+kind+fair (RKF) leader.

Values (Responsible + Kind + Fair) Get in the Way

The quick survey in the last post identified some differences between the RKF and “no-nonsense” leader.

The survey shows all RKF leaders said they wait too long before firing problem employees. Plus 75% of RKF leaders said other managers want them to decisively deal with problem employees. In addition, though all “no-nonsense” leaders use specific, measurable results for judging poor performers, this is not so for RKF leaders.

Click for survey results

 [br] Human Nature and R+K+F Leader,  Makes for…

Considering these survey results, if the poor performer’s boss is a responsible+kind+fair leader, their conversations about performance may be general, abstract, and cordial (no accusations, harsh language or anger). If there is a performance improvement plan (PIP), the timeline may be months long with no deadline or measure for improvement. Finally, if the problem performer continues to fail, there won’t be consequences that include a tangible loss.

…Crummy Communication + Long-Term Problem

If we put this all together, here’s what we have:

  1. Poor performers won’t realize they are poor performers. Even after what you considered a harsh conversation, they may not get it.
  2. Even if you’re able to talk where the employee “gets” she is in trouble, she may deny she is in danger.
  3. If you’re a RKF leader, it’s predictable the poor performer will not understand she is in danger of losing her job after talking to you.
  4. Even if you’re a no-nonsense leader and warn your employee she will get fired (using the word “fired” more than once), she might still be in denial.

Thus, especially with the Responsible/Kind/Fair leader, the poor performance may persist for years.

What’s next?

In the next post I’ll expand on these two points:

  • The leader must come to grips with their own denial and talk with the poor performer. The leader must cut through their own comfort zone and consider the employee’s tendency to ignore or deny their risk. The goal is to get the employee’s attention and convince him he will get fired if he doesn’t meet specific targets.
  • The Responsible+Kind+Fair leader will only take actions he sees as responsible, kind and fair. Such leaders must recognize a conversation that is uncomfortable for both them and the employee is the most responsible, kind and fair action they can take.

Before we get to that, I want to dive a bit into the notions of responsibility, fairness and kindness. Not as they pertain to the leader or poor performer. Rather, I want to look at how a senior leader with these values can make life difficult for a manager saddled with a poor performer.

With that in mind, please, please click the link to take a four-question survey.


See you next time,







Previous Post:  For the Poor Performer, Unperceived Danger Doesn’t Exist

New Survey:  Managing Poor Performers in the RKF Organization

YouTube Video about the Costa Concordia

Book: The Survivors Club

If Only Gay Sex Caused Global Warming by Daniel Gilbert

(Old) Survey Results


Responsible +Kind +Fair

When you have fired people, you waited way too long to do it.



Prior to introducing a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), do you establish objective performance and behavior measures and establish clear standards for those measures?



Consequences are specific



Consequences are “real” (i.e. loss of pay, demotion)



Consequences are based on measurable results/actions



Deadlines are short (weeks vs. months)



When you start a PIP, do you clearly communicate the consequences for failing to meet those goals with your employee?



Do you confirm and document evidence of the employee’s failures to meet their PIP’s goals?



If the employee could get fired if they don’t meet their PIP’s goals, do you specifically use a word like “fired” or “terminated?”




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