Should leaders focus on high performers or ‘problem children’?

This is the big question. Both high and low performers have an impact on productivity and profitability, so where should leaders devote their attention for the best results?

I was listening to a discussion recently where managers were talking about the best use of their time working with their teams. There were two sides to the “discussion”; one argued that high performers were of more value to the business because of their productivity and drive. The other argued that low performers could be high performers with a bit of help.

Here’s the thing. What bothered me about the discussion was the labeling – low performers. In this context, it felt very judgemental. What does that say about how these managers treated their people?

The discussion also ignored the bulk of the team members who fall in the middle – the solid, reliable performers – who produce good work every day. When it comes to choosing where to focus their attention, these people were left out of the conversation entirely.

In my opinion, you can’t simply work with people based on their current performance level. It overlooks everyone’s true potential which is something great leaders bring out.

Some cases for focusing on high performers.

  • These are the people who are highly productive and contribute most to the profitability and progressiveness of the business.
  • Looking after high performers – challenging and encouraging them – will boost their loyalty to the organisation and keep them motivated and challenged.

Some cases for focusing on low performers.

  • High performers are inclined to manage themselves, so if you focus on helping the low performers improve, your overall results will continue to improve. Try to ascertain what is impeding their performance (and possibly engagement). Formal training, coaching, and on-the-job training will also help meet their development needs.
  • Focusing on low performers often helps uncover some underlying, and often unreported issues within the culture. You may identify poor leadership or bad practices which are adversely impacting performance.

Performance is a leadership issue.

You might say I’m idealistic but actually I’m realistic. Performance IS a leadership issue and any performance level can be improved with help.

In most cases, high performing people are self-driven. Wise leaders keep them challenged by looking for opportunities to stretch themselves. They respond well to mentoring programs which give them personalised advice and guidance – and that doesn’t have to be from you as their current leader.

What about the low performers? First, most low performers only fall into that category because they need training, confidence or encouragement. No-one comes to work intending to perform poorly. Sometimes simply setting clear goals and providing valuable and well-delivered feedback is enough to help them to improve. Remember too, that they might not realise they are underperforming. Yes, occasionally you will have team members who are simply unable to do the job. It’s your job to help them find a role with a better fit.

What about the rest of your team?  This is where most of your people will sit and no true leader can afford to overlook them. I said earlier, you can’t just work with performance – you need to look for and nurture potential. This is the potential source of your next high-performance team members. What do they need to get them over the line? Remember, building a high-performance team doesn’t happen by accident.

Although you are leading a group of individuals, you are also leading a team, and leadership and performance go hand-in-hand. It means working with each person to help them find their strengths and talents so they can step up to a higher level of performance.

When it comes to managing the different levels of performance, I don’t believe it’s a case of either/or. I believe great leaders monitor, support and enable the potential of all the members in their team.  What are your thoughts on that?

Are you struggling with how ‘problem children’? Get in touch. Through the Athena Leadership Academy programs, we work with you to ensure you nurturing ‘problem children’ effectively.

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