What to do if You Have an Underperformer who is Great for Culture

Dealing with underperforming team members can be tricky, even when it’s a relatively straightforward case of someone not doing what they are supposed to. It’s even trickier when that same person happens to be a great fit in terms of culture. Suddenly, the conversations that you need to have are even more difficult because you will (rightly) be thinking about their strengths in terms of culture. 

Let’s look at a few principles that you can keep in mind when dealing with this situation and then look at how to get to the right outcome. We need to start by setting some context around culture and what it does (and doesn’t) mean.

Culture doesn’t mean nice or happy

Let’s start by briefly discussing what culture actually means. One thing to say up front is that you need to avoid one of the most common mistakes that managers (and teams) make when it comes to culture:

A great culture isn’t about being nice to each other or being happy all of the time.

Of course, you shouldn’t seek to be mean to each other or content with unhappiness! But framing a successful culture as being nice all of the time will lead to team members not having conversations that they need to have. Such as ones where they talk about underperformance or hold someone accountable. Ultimately, a team will avoid having conversations that could lead to someone being unhappy or being a little upset. 

Now, with that said, you should always try to do your job, even the hardest parts of your job in a way that is as kind and considerate as possible. But this is more about the way that you do things, not what you do. It’s not about avoiding the conversation altogether.

This leads us nicely to a great definition of what culture is.

What culture actually is

There are a bunch of different definitions of culture. One that I come back to a lot is:

“Culture is the way we do things around here.”

Emphasis on the word “way” is important. We’re talking about things such as:

  • The way that you hire people.
  • The way that you fire people.
  • The way that you talk to each other.
  • The way that you talk about problems or challenges.
  • The way that you give and receive feedback.

You get the idea…

You then connect this to what the outcome of a great team should be – high performance. 

Ultimately, you’re all trying to do a great job and get to an outcome that achieves your objectives as a team. This then leads to things such as pay rises, promotions and progression for the individuals within that team.

Don’t underestimate the impact of performance on culture and don’t think of them as mutually exclusive. It’s very hard to have a happy, engaged team who are not hitting their performance goals which is why high performance is actually tied very closely to a great culture.

A great culture may well be a happy, engaged team, but high performance needs to sit at the core of a great culture.

So, are they actually “great for culture?”

With all of this context in mind, we can reframe the problem and see the truth – an underperforming team member isn’t actually great for culture. In fact, they can damage it in the long run.

The truth is that they are probably great in other ways, that do contribute to culture, such as:

  • They are liked (even loved) by other team members and clients.
  • They bring good energy to the team either in-person or on calls.
  • They are kind and thoughtful, perhaps remembering things like birthdays.

Let me be clear – none of these are bad things! In fact, they are amazing things and carry huge amounts of value for a team and you as a leader. People with these kinds of attributes can carry a team when things get difficult and they can be a huge supporter of culture.

But I also need to be clear on something else – they don’t outweigh underperformance. 

Now, I’m not saying to ignore these great attributes and they should count towards how you handle someone who has them, but isn’t performing. 

Let’s look at how to keep these great attributes in mind but also handle the underperformance.

How to approach the conversation

I’ll start by saying that the principles of how to improve performance and how to approach difficult conversations still stand here, even with the context of someone being a good fit on the softer side of culture in mind.

In addition to these principles, there are a few ways to keep in mind the attributes that we described earlier.

Acknowledge their strengths and contribution to culture

When you have a conversation with them, by all means talk about the positives that you’re seeing and be clear that you value those things. As we’ve discussed, the softer side of culture is very important and even when someone isn’t performing well, it doesn’t mean that these attributes are forgotten about completely.

You should be clear that you want these behaviours to continue, but that you also need to see them balanced against their concrete outputs and performance, which brings us onto the next action.

Focus very, very clearly on their performance

As with any conversation regarding feedback and improving performance, you need to be as specific as possible on what success looks like. You need to not just deliver feedback on what may have gone wrong in terms of behaviours or deliverables, but you also need to provide direction on how to fix things. 

Again, you’re not asking them to stop any of the positive behaviours that you’ve seen, but you do need to emphasise the need for improvement and what this improvement looks like for them.

Be clear on timelines for improvement

With the context of their positive attributes and behaviours when it comes to culture in mind, you need to decide how long you’re happy to give them in order for performance to improve. It’s perfectly reasonable to extend them a little longer than you would normally, in light of this context. But you do need to draw a line somewhere so that they know what they’re up against.

Are they in the right seat?

Finally, when you have someone who is adding value to your team in terms of culture and their general presence, but not performing in their role, you could consider moving them to a different seat. 

To quote a famous phrase from Good to Great:

You need to get the right people on the bus and then ensure that they’re in the right seat.

Sometimes, this means that you need to move someone to a different seat and this is okay to do if you have the right alternative seat for them, along with their being no doubt about you wanting them on the bus in the first place.

When someone is clearly a great fit for culture, then you probably do want to keep them on the bus and continue to add value to the team. But maybe consider if there are other roles for them to move to which will allow them to perform better and contribute more on that side of things too.

One word of caution – don’t move someone to a seat that you don’t need to be filled. Only take this route if you are confident that the new role is one that adds value to the team, along with them being the right person for it. 

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