The Right Solution to the Wrong Problem

Not a Romantic Solution

Not a Romantic Solution

Ever applied a great solution to the wrong problem?

Years ago I joined friends for a guys’ sailing weekend out of Bayfield, WI. As I was leaving, Wendy asked me to buy her something nice from a Bayfield gift shop.

The weekend over, we sailors loaded the van for the return to Minneapolis. I remembered Wendy’s request. Imagining the teasing I’d get from the guys if I said “wait, I need to stop at a gift shop so I can get my sweetie something nice,” I kept my mouth shut.

Bad idea.

A Romantic Solution

A Romantic Solution

When I got home, Wendy didn’t ask to see her gift right away. She didn’t ask for about three minutes. You can imagine how that went. I’d traded a few minutes of ribbing for days of hurt feelings and silence. After three days, I called my friend Tony and explained what I’d created and that nothing I’d said or done had any impact on Wendy. All Tony said was “Jim, you made a romantic blunder and you need to apply a romantic solution. You’re not applying romantic solutions.”

Big-Hearted Leaders Confuse Character with Performance

I recognized another problem-solution mismatch while meeting with a 30-something client. Betty was the marketing manager for a large professional services firm. We’d been discussing her efforts to coach a poor performer. Her coaching hadn’t worked. Training hadn’t worked. Nothing had worked.

In the midst of all those failed solutions, I remembered Tony’s advice. This wasn’t a performance problem, so performance-improvement solutions wouldn’t work.

I learned to distinguish a not-performance problem from a friend of mine, Nicki. She is an HR person. A real HR pro.

We were catching up with each other when I said something about dealing with “poor performers.” Nicki’s response was immediate and decisive — managing poor performers is easy. If the employee is under-performing because they are young and inexperienced, you connect them to a mentor. If they make too many mistakes or if they’re slow, you train them. If they still don’t do that job well and (1) you believe in them and (2) you have a job that looks more suitable, you try them in that different job.

If all else fails, you either fire them or offer a “soft landing” if that’s more your culture.

But, she said, things got tricky and messy when you have a “problem performer.”

Big-Hearted Leader Review

To remind you of the ground we’ve covered in this series, here’s a summary of key points:

  1. Our brains are most sensitive to the danger of people throwing things at us. Performance reviews don’t include thrown objects. Thus, poor performers won’t realize they are in danger of getting fired.
  2. Even if a poor performer recognizes the danger of getting fired, it is human nature for people to deny that risk.
  3. Responsible, kind and fair managers are likely to soft-soap performance criticism. With that soft-soaping, the employee won’t know they are a poor performer or that they could get fired.

An earlier post in this series included a survey. That survey asked what behaviors readers associate with poor performers. Let’s consider the results.

Poor Performer vs. Problem Person

As I read through the survey results, I remembered the conversation I had with Nicki. As she predicted, I noticed the telltale behaviors fell into two groups. Below you see the top 12 survey responses.

Performance vs. Problem Chart

Disclaimer: There was nothing scientific about this survey. I use these results just to trigger a conversation and our thinking.

With Nicki’s words in my head, I noticed a few of the top behaviors (in the green font) fit her notion of performance issues. But most of the behaviors, shown in the red font, struck me as problem performer, character or values issues.

So it seems there are two separate problems: poor performers and problem people.

Returning to my client, Betty, introduced earlier, we left off with my having realized she was applying performance solutions to a character problem.

As I recall, I said something like, “Betty, it sounds to me like this employee wants your job. She is undermining you with your staff and is undercutting you with your boss.

Maybe you should fire her?”

Nine-Box and the Problem / Poor Performer

Nine-Box CharacterA business tool used in succession planning and employee evaluations is the Nine-Box Exercise.

In the classic 9-Box, leaders rate employees by performance and leadership potential.

For our big-hearted leaders, I recommend a version developed by my friend, Bob Adkinson.

In Bob’s, leaders rate employees on performance and values. In this post, I’m using the word character instead of values because I believe it communicates my point more effectively. Bob’s point is you won’t be able to defend using the word “character” legally.  Thus, Bob is right and I’m wrong when it comes to which word you use within your organization. [I’ve published Bob’s and others feedback in a separate post.  See the link below.]

Backstabbing isn’t a Poor Performer Issue

Backstabbing is a Values Issue

Backstabbing is not a performance issue

Organizations vary in how much they value performance vs. character. The organization represented in the 9-Box chart above values trust and teamwork. It doesn’t tolerate toxic character. Likewise, an employee with detrimental performance who shows inspiring character is still valued. She will get the opportunity to transfer into job that looks like a better fit for her skills (if such a job is available).

Betty’s Light-bulb moment

I’ve had dozens of conversations with clients agonizing over decisions about “poor performers.” When I’ve shared the Nine-Box exercise, many have an a-ha moment. The a-ha comes when they realize they are treating a character problem with performance solutions.

As my “romantic problem” needed a “romantic solution,” your character/values problems need character/values solutions.

Returning to Betty’s story, I posed the possibility Betty’s employee was undermining and undercutting her. Betty was quiet. Our conversation for that day was complete.

That afternoon, Betty met with her HR Rep and later the two met with the problem employee. That conversation led to the employee getting fired.

This post probes a complicated subject about decisions that affect real lives.  I’ve received some great critical feedback from four friends who represent over 200 years of business and leadership experience.  I’ve made that feedback available through a link below.

Call to Action

Make a list of people you’ve worked with who you’d guess fall outside of boxes 1-4 in the 9-Box.  Then download the attached blank 9-Box and assign those folks into your 9-Box.  See if the results surprise you.

Did any alleged poor performers show up as problem people or vice versa?

Be well,

Jim's signature



Critical Feedback to this post — I recommend you read this before acting on this post

Download a blank Nine-Box Exercise in PDF format for your own use

Download complete survey results regarding the behaviors of poor performers

Bob Adkinson’s website.

My post about the Nine-Box Exercise

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