Some years ago, American business leaders began complaining to college deans that business schools were not preparing their students to work in teams.
The result was that MBA schools and undergraduate business programs began reorganizing their instructional models so that every student got some experience working on a team.
The active response of our colleges and business schools produced a more continuous process for graduates entering the workplace. It also produced a more continuous flow of complaints; student complaints about teams morphed seamlessly into workplace complaints about teams.
There is nothing that can compare to the effectiveness or the personal satisfaction that being part of a team can bring. A good team can find solutions easier than individuals can, and can smooth out difficulties in a way that makes hard work a rewarding pleasure. But even the most ardent enthusiast of workplace team organizations must admit that they are like the nursery rhyme’s little girl with a curl on her forehead. When they are good, they are very, very good; and when they are bad they are horrid.
There is no gripe-o-meter to help a manager sort out the serious complaints from the ordinary griping. Complaints about underperforming team members should always be treated as serious.
The complaints almost always involve a worker who is not pulling his or her weight on a project. And they center on performance evaluations. Just as students are concerned that their grade will be lower because an assigned team member is a dud, workers have little doubt that the performance of the team will affect their performance evaluation and their pay.
A workplace complaint about an underperforming team member would seem to be a trivial matter. These complaints, though, appear to be expressions of some deep, almost primal fear of being blamed for something you didn’t do. Experience tells us that there are few things more toxic to workforce morale and motivation than management’s failure to recognize and deal with underperforming individuals.
Fortunately, dealing with the underperforming team member is relatively straightforward and, even better, the odds of getting it right are in your favor. When a team complains about an underperforming worker, you have three basic choices:
■ You can ignore the complaint, leaving it to the team to impart its standards to the underperforming member.
■ You can terminate the employment of the underperforming member and replace him or her.
■ You can talk with the underperforming member and, based on your assessment, assign him or her to another team or to a position in an area in the business with a non-team, more traditional, hierarchical structure.
Only one of the choices is likely to bring you trouble: the first one. To start with, most teams are not equipped to handle imparting standards in a productive way. While they will attempt to fire up an underperformer initially, they expect you to deal with underperformance issues and if you don’t live up to your responsibilities in this area the complaint will fester.
Options two and three can be modified or mixed to fit your business, the labor market, your recruiting style, and the amount of time you have available. Nearly a decade of a sluggish labor market has meant that the smart money was on replacing the underperforming worker. That is changing rapidly, and managers find themselves looking at underperforming workers as representing an investment whose value should be recovered if possible. Under these circumstances, a manager should consider discussing your performance expectations with the underperforming worker and assigning him or her to another team.
Reassignment by itself carries a high risk of simply replicating the original results. Managers must identify the source of the underperformance and attempt to correct it; recognizing, though, that many times underperformance is rooted in a behavior pattern that lies beyond the scope of management’s capability to change.
Depending on a manager’s assessment of the situation and the skills set needed, it may make more sense to assign the underperforming worker to a position in the more traditional, hierarchical section of the business. These areas persist even in the most team-oriented organizations. Some valuable workers simply do not function, let alone flourish, in a team environment.
The most important thing to remember is to address the complaint as promptly as possible. Take it seriously. Do something.
James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He writes a column for the monthly Herald Business Journal.