A short while ago I was in a coaching session with a sales manager who was having some difficulty with two people in his sales team. These two sales people were the top performers, consistently out-selling the other members as well as consistently being above their monthly targets.
The problem lay not in the results they were achieving, but in their behaviour at work. They did not work well with other sales people, blamed others when their sales efforts fell through, often came to work late or left early, and their admin was often not up to date. As the sales manager described it, they were a “law unto themselves” and “did exactly as they pleased”.
The sales manager in question had held numerous conversations with each of them over a period of time. Both the sales people committed to changing their behaviour, but nothing actually changed.
The sales manager felt stuck. He expressed concern about the impact their behaviour was having on the people around them.
But at the same time … they were his top performers and he needed to look after them.
When I asked him how the other sales people in the team were performing his assessments ranged from “mediocre” to “not well at all”.
After this conversation I had two further encounters with other sales managers in the same company describing similar situations: often their top sales people were very difficult to work with as their behaviour in the workplace was intolerable for others.
Why do managers sometimes find themselves in this situation? The answer lies in what the manager has chosen to make important – namely, the results.
When the manager is measured on results, he/she is acting in self-interest to ensure the results happen.
For our sales manager above, disciplining or firing the culprits would result in the risk of a dip in his results which he would not be prepared to tolerate, particularly in the light of the average performance of the rest of the team.
In essence, a manager in this situation feels he/she can’t “afford” to take action.
The irony is that the only way out is to make the results less important – and the people in his team more important. This is consistent with shifting his attention from what he is getting from his team, to what he is giving them.
All the sales managers I spoke with came to realise the following when they worked through these problems.
Firstly, they had made themselves victims of their own self-interest, and felt powerless to do anything about it.
Secondly, the environment they had created for the rest of the team made those team members unwilling to go the extra mile. The leaders had in fact created the conditions for mediocre to poor performance by the other sales people through their preferential treatment of the top sales performers.
Finally, they had been committing the “soft mistake”: not holding people accountable for their actions when in fact it was appropriate to do so. The message sent to the rest of the team by this action was: how you behave is irrelevant as long as you produce the goods.
The implication? A toxic work environment for everyone around them.
So, the obvious corrective action is to discipline the individuals for deliberate malevolence in their work behaviour.
But this is a difficult decision for leaders who put results first, because it means risking the results in the interests of people’s wellbeing. To do so means to shift attention from results to the person – in this case the well-being of the whole team.
It is easy to fire someone for malevolence when his/her work performance is also poor. The real test of intent however occurs when the leader is required to fire someone for malevolence when the results he/she produces are good. Leaders who are able to pass this test, will bring out the best in their people.