It’s been said that one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel, and this is particularly true in business. The issue is more insidious than you might think, because that bad apple need not be downright rotten to hold everyone back. Often the person in question is “good enough,” giving them enough hiding places that they elude detection. If the bad apple happens to hold a senior role, you’ve got a serious problem on your hands.
I’ve come across many teams where the CEO or board chair concluded the entire C-suite and executive teams were mediocre, when in fact there was one underperformer in a senior position, hiding in plain sight, who effectively contaminated all the others. If you’re striving to build a high-performance team with a culture of excellence, just one non-achiever can hold back not only the team, but the entire business.
Underperformers in senior roles within organizations are all too common. This is counterintuitive, because logic tells us competitive dynamics will weed out those with limited skills. But underperformers in the senior ranks of organizations typically have one talent: They are particularly adept at hiding their limited business competencies. That skillful hiding is dangerous to the business, and understanding how it operates can help unmask underperformers who effectively cause mediocrity for the entire organization.
To illustrate, consider these all-too-common characteristics of underperformers in senior roles:
- They don’t make specific commitments. Underperformers in senior roles often hold positions where it’s difficult to measure outcomes. Instead of positions that are associated with dollars and other hard metrics, they often they craft roles for themselves that focus on softer variables such as “managing people.” Regardless of the role, senior underperformers will fight tooth-and-nail against committing to specific, time-bound, measurable deliverables. They claim that others on their team are responsible for the hard metrics, or they might select an area that is legitimately tough to measure (and if so, that choice is no accident).The end result is that their peers are responsible for cold, hard metrics, whereas the senior underperformer is absolved from such responsibility. This can quickly create a toxic culture in the senior ranks – if one of the underperformer’s peers fails to hit a measurable target and is held accountable, she will justifiably resent it if her underperforming peer is spared, particularly if his mediocrity is on display. These resentments can spread rapidly, with a demoralizing effect on the upper ranks, and can quickly trickle down through the organization.
- They are masterful excuse-makers. When things legitimately go wrong, there’s usually an explanation. Someone might miss a performance target because a family member died and they just couldn’t bring their A-game; or perhaps a sudden shift in the economy made budgets impossible to achieve. When people invoke these kinds of reasons for performance failures, it’s important to consider what differentiates excuses, for they are explanations without solutions, and they are the stock-in-trade of senior underperformers.High performers suffer the same vicissitudes as anyone else, but they are quick to offer solutions. If they have to take two weeks off due to a family illness, they suggest a way to pick up the slack without being asked. And if a global pandemic takes revenue to zero, high performers immediately offer ideas to turn things around. Not so with senior underperformers, who are quick to point out how hard it is to deal with family illness, or how severe the economic downturn is . . . but almost never proactively propose new ways of solving the problem. A strong performer sees it as her responsibility to cope with adversity, whereas underperformers focus instead on how difficult it is for them, personally, to grapple with that very same adversity. If the underperformer is permitted to continue in this behavior, it disincentivizes top performers from taking the very responsibility the business needs to weather storms.
- They staff up. Underperformers in senior roles often add layer upon layer of subordinates. This enables them to conceal their own deficiencies because those subordinates, unsurprisingly, don’t perform well (and how could they, if they have an underperformer as their leader?). This provides a convenient excuse – after all, if you’re managing a slew of people who don’t hit their targets, how can you be expected to hit your own?This is a lethal double-whammy to the business: There is enormous cost of paying all the subordinates to serve as shields; and the even more expensive cost of having that same group of people serve as catalysts for spreading their leader’s mediocrity. In this way, unwitting subordinate shields can amplify the senior underperformer’s deficiencies. I’ve seen senior underperformers assemble teams who themselves quickly devolved into underperformers; and when the group has been large enough, it’s effectively set the (low) standard for the company.
Collectively, these behaviors create a culture in which others can also hide, and a dysfunctional environment that rejects responsibility, making excellence impossible. Underperformers in the upper echelons of business are like a cancer, and the very nature of their seniority can enable their mediocrity to metastasize throughout a business. And as with cancer, early identification of the problem is key, enabling the business to treat – or excise – the problem.