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Survivor: The Organization

Survivor: The Organization

Does it really help you to vote people off your IT island? Isn't there a better way to build a staff of top performers? In fact, there is

As you review your organization's bench strength, the bottom of the bell curve is bugging you. A small percentage of employees just aren't cutting it. Once upon a time, most of them were highly rated and, as a result, they're sitting in big jobs. But you're losing confidence in them, and they're losing confidence in themselves. They're becoming defensive or going underground.

It's natural to blame them. After all, their performance is affecting yours, and their previous contributions are fading in light of current challenges. Many organizations practise an extreme form of the "blame the employee" game by using an up-or-out approach to management development. In the up-or-out process (typically done once a year as part of organizational planning), managers are asked to chart out their organizational needs for the future, assess their staff's current capabilities, and identify the top and bottom 10 percent that should move "up" or move "out". As a result of this process, people get promoted, reassigned, hired and "managed out" (read: fired without an ensuing lawsuit).

In so-called high-performance organizations, executives follow this process dutifully, with the understanding that their ability to manage out that bottom 10 percent is part of their job, albeit an unpleasant one. This ongoing "Survivor: The Organization" game results in a corporate "kill or be killed" mentality. The up-or-out process provides an easy road for managers who would rather focus on the low-hanging fruit of structure and talent assessment and defer more difficult decisions regarding strategy and career development. In many organizations, organizational planning has been reduced to endless hours spent tinkering with org charts (in the vain hope that some sort of a Suduko-type answer will emerge) and gossiping about others' capabilities and potential (albeit in an organizationally sanctioned manner).

Why Up-or-Out Doesn't Work

Up-or-out is a ruthless, Darwinian approach that, very often, simply doesn't work because it ignores two key realities. First, it assumes that if there is a performance issue it's due to the shortcomings of the individual. In my experience, most individual performance issues are really management performance issues in disguise. Second, up-or-out assumes that the devil you don't know is better than the devil you do. In reality, hiring someone from the outside is difficult, expensive and typically results in trading one set of problems for another.

Try, instead, to entertain the idea that you have most of the right people right now, and spend your time assigning them to roles that they 1. want to do, 2. know how to do, and 3. in which they know what to do. You can do this by:

  • Defining the strategy collaboratively. People will know what to do if they're involved in the development of objectives, strategies and tactics. Only within a shared strategic context can individuals apply their experience, knowledge and social skills in a productive, collaborative fashion. Good talent can go bad when it's assigned to an initiative that is ill-conceived and unsupported by others.

  • Understanding your people. People are born with inherent talents and the drive to do the best they can in order to feel good and significant. Many times, performance issues crop up when an individual's values, motivators and talents don't jibe with the job they are assigned. People will perform best if their role connects with what makes them tick and leverages and enhances their strengths.

  • Providing support. No one has a complete package of talents, skills and knowledge, and most are unaware of their relative strengths and deficiencies - especially when it comes to taking on a new challenge. Managers can help people learn how to do their jobs by providing them with the resources and support (oversight, coaching, education, colleagues, tools) that supplement and complement their abilities.

  • Clarifying processes and roles. Managers can also help ensure that their people know how to do their jobs by designing processes that clearly define their accountabilities and how their work relates to others. In organizational design, it's important to design processes and roles before addressing staffing questions.

Wise leaders understand that many a prince has been made to look like a pig when faced with challenges that are outside of their control due to strategic misalignment, organizational chaos and role misfits. Before you decide that a person just can't cut it, take a hard look in the mirror and make sure you have set them up for success, not failure.

Susan Cramm is founder and president of Valuedance, a California-based executive coaching firm

Reader Q&A

Q: Jack Welch may not have been the first to use up-or-out but he certainly popularized it and was lionized for employing it. But did it really work for him and for GE? Or was that just hype?

A: Up-or-out has been misused by less mature companies in their misguided attempt at focusing on best practices rather than appropriate practices. If all companies could sustain the growth and build the HR competence that GE has, up-or-out would not be a business problem (only a problem of conscience).

Up-or-out cannot exist without growth because without growth, there is no up.

GE developed a set of HR policies that ensure that up-or-out is supported by clear performance expectations, frequent performance reviews, candid feedback and management accountability for talent development.

In the words of a former GE employee: "When the organization holds the manager accountable for talent development - and in fact judges and financially rewards a manager by how many new leaders she produces - then you can mix in a higher desired turnover rate and mitigate some of the downsides."

Q: What can one do about the employee who even after being given fresh challenges and help with direction and organization, continues to make costly mistakes, mistakes that threaten to lower morale and impede efficiency? When is enough, enough?

A: It's enough when you have assumed 50 percent of the responsibility for the issue and you've done all that you can to understand the employee's motivations, values and abilities, and, furthermore, you have placed him in a role that he's well suited for and is excited about. The truth is, some people just aren't in the right company, in the right place, and you do them a favour by helping them figure this out as soon as possible so that they can move on. If you do the career development and counselling right, they will realize that they don't fit, leave on their own and thank you on their way out of the door.

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