The Business ChallengeThe director of a safety and quality control function in a Fortune 50 company contacted us to request a teambuilding session for a team within his department. It was a team of 11 data entry technicians whose task was a fairly simple, though critical, step in the company's monitoring of the quality and safety of their products. There were several problems broiling around the group, including complaints (from within and outside the team) about distracting behaviors, personal use of work time, punctuality, inconsistent attendance at departmental meetings, lack of advancement opportunities and poor performance in terms of both quality and quantity. The two managers of the group, along with the Director, were worn out and frustrated with their failed attempts to change these behaviors and redirect the team to cohesive, successful performance. Having participated in team building sessions we had facilitated in the past, he had contacted us hoping that we could use a one-day teambuilding session to get the group's attention, and perhaps align them to a more workable set of practices and behaviors.
The Zemo Trevathan and Associates SolutionWe had two immediate questions for the Director to help us determine whether, and how, we could accept this request:
- Does this group of people actually need to function as a team?
- All the complaints and behaviors aside, what exactly do you mean by poor performance?
The answer to the second question was shocking. It wasn't just a vague sense of poor performance that the Director was describing to us, but a long-standing, near-complete failure against a very clear metric: only 3 of the 11 individuals regularly met the minimum performance standard of completion of 35 cases per week. And this was intentionally designed to be a very lenient minimum standard, not a stretch goal; as context, one group member averaged 60 completed cases per week. The group as a whole had been averaging below this minimum standard that management had set for quantity of work - one individual averaged only 6 completed cases per week, or 16% of the minimum standard!
With this data, our answer was very simple: we told the Director that we would not do a team building exercise for this "team". Instead, we gathered the Director and two managers together and asked them if they were ready to take this "minimum standard" that had established seriously, and actually hold the members of the workgroup accountable for reaching it - this would include firing anyone who continued to perform below the minimum standard. They were eager, even relieved to make this commitment. We suggested that if they, as managers, stopped worrying about the variety of behaviors that they'd been focused on, and instead simply focused on enacting clear, previously-agreed upon consequences, that they would probably bring the team around within a couple months, or be able to bring in new hires to replace staff who continued to egregiously under-perform.
They still wanted our assistance in achieving this turn around, and we agreed to help them communicate the new performance management approach to the workgroup and do some training in the areas of personal responsibility/accountability to support the group in making the switch. We carried out a series of brief interviews with the individual staff, and the interviews confirmed that the situation was truly as backwards as it sounded: this group was seething with complaints about management and each other, feeling that they were being very poorly treated and compensated, and at the same time blissfully unconcerned with the inadequacy of their own performance levels. During this information gathering phase, we also had the director contact work with his HR representative to get perfectly clear about the company's firing policies; which turned out to be a six month process that required documenting both performance levels and offering assistance to help the employees improve performance where needed.
We planned a one day session and offered it to the staff in exactly that spirit: as skill-building and discussion assistance to them in raising their performance to meet the minimum standards. We coached the managers to clearly communicate to the group that they were not being asked or expected to function as a team, which meant they were now free of some of the former behaviors and requirements, such as attending departmental meetings. The managers also clearly delivered the message that they would stop "harping" about the other "behavior problems" and that their focus as managers would be purely on the results - performing at or above the minimum standard, and that any individual still performing below the minimum standard in six months would be fired.
The group responded very well to this clear, honest communication from their managers. They were not happy, of course, about the threat of losing their jobs, but understood clearly the message that it was simply a matter of performance and business value. They also responded well to the skill building portion of the session, latching on to the concepts of personal responsibility, and leaving the session with a sense of energy and anticipation.
The Director reported to us that over the following weeks the complaint level from and about the group virtually ceased, that the behavior problems became a non-issue, and that everyone on the team followed through with the promise to focused on and improve their productivity. A full year later, he reported to us that the group's case completion average was far above the minimum standard, and that 9 of the individuals were performing above, and only two of the individuals remaining just below, but close enough that they were still being given the support to continue improving. The simple transition to performance management had succeeded.
At that time we also we received a letter that made the project even more personally satisfying. It was from the employee who had been both the loudest complainer and lowest performer in that workgroup (the one with the 6 completions per week average). She reported that she was now a consistently above-average performer and 100% more satisfied with her job. She thanked us for turning around her career, and her life.