Managing underachievers, Part 2

Last week, we broached the subject of bright - but underperforming - employees. You know they have the skills to succeed, but they just don't.

Organizational development expert Adrian Savage says traditional motivators such as incentives or threats probably won't work either. "External pressure from the manager feels to the person like manipulation or bribery," Savage says. "Bright people have enormous internal motivation and huge values around achievement. They don't do it for money or praise."

To recap last week's scenario. You need reports run weekly.

Your employee doesn't do them on time. You ask nicely, then not-so-nicely. No dice. Now you're at a standoff. You know the reports are important to the department. Your employee thinks a more high-profile project he's working on is top priority and he runs out of time to run the reports. Neither side communicates this information to the other.

"The employee isn't lazy or maligned, they are doing what they believe is right," Savage says. "The fact that we don't believe it is right should tell us we have a different view of what's right. Until you sort out the fundamental problem of conflicting values each side feels not only justified in their position but also quite righteous. It can escalate to the point someone gets fired. As long as you're into a right-wrong mindset the only way you can win is if someone else loses."

Savage says bright people can easily learn facts and processes, but have a hard time changing their behaviors as they have made them quite successful. "Because they're bright they'll justify things logically. 'Someone is wrong here, it can't possibly be me, it must be someone else.' "To remedy the situation, Savage recommends finding out the cause behind the problem: "To solve a problem you have to be able to put it out on the table in a nonthreatening environment and take the right/wrong mindset away." By stating that neither party is right or wrong and simply setting out to solve a problem jointly, you should have an easier time reaching a mutually beneficial conclusion.

"The main thing you need is attention to the whole area of values," Savage says. "We think they're simple and they're not.

Most of the time we run on autopilot, because we assume our values are right; we assume all right-thinking people will think as we do. Their values are always relative and we want to make them absolute."

"The bottom line is that the bright person who underperforms has a reason for doing so," Savage says. "If we discover the reason, we may well change the behavior. Preaching, threatening and fussing never work. The only real barrier to finding the truth could be that it will throw an uncomfortable light on our own part in the whole sorry mess."

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