For the past few years, I’ve been a team lead for my company. I think of it as “management lite,” where I don’t have all the responsibility, but I get to figure out how to manage tasks and the people that complete them. Given my interest in team culture and a dev position vacancy we’re trying to fill at my company, I’ve been having several hallway conversations with another manager here. He lent me his copy of First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman (1999), which he has read multiple times.
This post is not intended to be a synopsis of the book. I want to share some of the metaphors I’ve learned and provide an example instance based on a previous job. Perhaps you’ve seen a similar pattern play out for your place of employment and can view underperforming employees in a different light.
The premise of the book is founded on a comprehensive collection of surveys where Gallup interviewed over 80,000 managers across many fields. The goal was to find what makes some managers great by using statistics to see if some of these management aphorisms that sound/feel right really work in practice.
Every worker has talents — recurring patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that can be productively applied — that drives her and defines how she thinks. Just like actors are cast for roles in a play, employees fill roles at their job. If you take one worker with a specific set of talents and put him in a role that doesn’t allow those talents to be exercised, it’s a lose-lose: The worker isn’t able to be his best self, and the company gets low-quality results. This is called a casting error; the person is neither good nor bad, yet the fit is not correct.
This idea reminded me of a situation in a former job, and now I can apply this talent/casting metaphor to better understand that situation. (For the sake of discussion, let’s call this individual David.)
A black box has a known input and some observable output; however, you don’t get to see how that output was produced because the inner workings of the box are obscured. There were several strategies I tried with David (known input) that didn’t seem to produce any observable change in output.
Here are some examples of behaviors that were less than ideal:
- No hustle even though the queue of next items was defined and non-empty
- Poor communication (e.g., rarely volunteered information, said only the obligatory “good morning” and “see you tomorrow”)
- E-mailing questions to people that were between 6 and 50 feet from his desk
- General goofing off on the Internet for long stretches of time
I felt like I provided a healthy model of process, behavior, and communication on a variety of things in our department and the company. In other words, I believe I gave him the tools to succeed; yet I didn’t feel it was my responsibility to hold his hand while he used those tools. The message I received was, “I see the tools but I don’t want, or care, to use them.” This led me to having one-on-one sessions to learn more about why he might be disengaged.
Those sessions didn’t really bear fruit and he didn’t volunteer much information for me to refine my approach. Perhaps he felt uncomfortable talking to me, whether as a peer, someone who reports to me, or just another human being – I’m unsure whether I’ll never know the whole truth.
One of the signs was an inconsistency between stated interest and observed behavior. Specifically, he said he loved programming and wanted a mixture of solo and team activities. In practice, he would very rarely seek out interactions with others, and most of the programming feedback involved a significant amount of complaining (e.g., working with thing X, Y, or Z was a real pain).
In short, if he had any guidance on how I could help him perform better, he didn’t share that with me (or with my manager).
- David seemed to do best when given well-structured assignments, being told to do something, put in a situation where he has the upper hand (e.g., more skills, knowledge), and applying his skills competitively.
- Healthy competition is fine; however, the project/environment we were in didn’t have much use for a competitive model. That’s also not how I operate when interacting/managing, so that didn’t help either.
- My main day-to-day complaints were low engagement and reactive communication only when absolutely necessary (i.e., someone had to ask him rather than him volunteering that information).
- He would do whatever was specifically asked of him, but it came off as compliance by mandate. It would have felt more rewarding if he did something because he genuinely wanted to improve, rather than acting as if it were a requirement for employment.
- Most of the skill acquisition was very academic-based, where knowledge is consumed from top to bottom (linearly). There was rarely any discussion, questions, or acknowledgment of things learned.
For this particular job, I didn’t have hiring/firing authority, so I wanted to make the best of what I had to work with. It’s my belief that David was cast incorrectly: The positives didn’t match the current role, the neutrals seemed negative, and negatives were just that.
The environment was not one that played to his talents. In the company in general, especially in the software department, we really didn’t have enough people or time to implement the overhead of keeping tabs on communication-oriented tasks and defining the “how” of interaction. You needed to find ways to make your own way within the existing structure, because the tasks weren’t going to be spelled out for you. This required you to care enough to improve things for the company and for your own esteem/pride as a professional.
The management book argues that you should partner weak performers with one that supplements his skills. For example, David could have done the competitive work and I could have done the collaborative work. Unfortunately, (1) there weren’t enough people/projects to make that feasible, and (2) I doubt he really wanted to learn collaboration based on the multiple times we paired up. Most of the joint work gave off a “chore” vibe from David and the connection never seemed natural.
To be fair, David wasn’t actively harming anything. He didn’t get the company into trouble, and he wasn’t a significant bottleneck for my work. Because I didn’t really have solid grounds, I felt it would have been difficult for me to ask for some kind of intervention from my manager. David simply failed to meet the bar that I set. Perhaps he didn’t find it a sound investment to excel because he didn’t think the company had much to offer (i.e., it was just a job).
Sadly I don’t have a satisfying conclusion, as I left that company and I haven’t kept up with many of my former coworkers. I really wish he would have communicated to me about what his strengths were — the ones I found were just my own observations (i.e., assumptions). With that information, I could have suggested he work on a different project or I could have adjusted my management style to better align with his needs. Alternatively, maybe he’s better suited to being a Dark Matter Developer.
Peopleware offers a similar proposition:
When a worker seems unable to perform and seems not to care at all about the quality of his work, for example, it is a sure sign that the poor fellow is overwhelmed by the difficulty of the work. He doesn’t need more pressure. What he needs is reassignment, possibly to another company.
Personally what disappoints me the most is that I freely offered my insights and knowledge to try to help David build a career for himself – not by telling him what to do, but by sharing what I’ve learned and letting him choose for himself. He seemed neither grateful nor interested in what I had to offer. I love helping people and watching them grow on their own after a few gentle nudges from me. It’s too bad I didn’t get that opportunity with David.
Image credit: “Las Meninas. Movie Set 2” by Tamara podolchak – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons