In response to a recent column, “When a top producer is disruptive to your team,” Jan. 18, a reader offered an insightful alternative direction, writing: “The first thing to do is make sure the problem is really her, and not just the rest of the team. Perhaps the top performer is simply that good, and the rest of the team feels threatened. Too many times I have seen a top performer driven out by the concerted effort of a weak team to find fault … even unjustly. Since they cannot or will not improve, they find a different way to level the playing field. But this too is a failure in leadership.”
I, too, have seen this play out in many situations, from the times when superior candidates are rejected to ostracism of strong employees, apparently in an effort to lower the bar. However, I do not always think it is a conscious or intentional act, so I’ve been exploring ways that people have successfully managed this impulse.
For one, the key has been reflection on past behavior: “I didn’t realize what was happening at the time, but later, as I thought about why I didn’t think he was a good candidate, I realized I was insecure that he’d be better than me at our job. Now I check myself to be sure I’m not doing the same thing again.”
Another person focuses on recognizing her own strengths: “At some point, I realized he might be amazing at his job, but he might not be amazing at everything I am trying to achieve.”
These perspectives suggest some useful leadership strategies. For example, send strong messages about each team member’s strengths to mitigate potential insecurity and avoid setting up a “zero sum” situation where someone is the best … and by extension, others are lesser.
This is a cultural solution. If, as a leader, you pursue a hiring strategy of always looking for bright people who can contribute at a high level, this will begin to resolve itself. Note that brightness transcends seniority — so if you’re looking for an entry-level person, get the brightest one you can find. And beyond being bright themselves, be sure that they share the value of wanting to be surrounded by people who may be even brighter than they are.
As leader within this high talent environment, focus on not being the person with all the answers. Teams coalesce when they have a problem to solve, so it’s up to a good leader to give them a chance to step up.
Be aware that this is not the easy way. The example of Abraham Lincoln comes to mind, as explored in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals.” Hiring the people who tried to beat you, and who have dramatically different experiences, goals and visions may seem counterintuitive. But it’s this very diversity that leads to a successful outcome.
How does all of this address the issue of undermining low performers? By creating a workplace where they do not flourish. On a team where standards focus on what you get done, your success as a collaborator, and mutual respect, the average low performer will realize they no longer have a place in this aspirational setting.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, a credentialed coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.