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  • Writer's pictureDirk Baerts

Over- & underachievers, the dangers of outliers

When you map out the performance of employees in an organization, it will mostly end up being a Gaussian (or normal) distribution, typically represented by a bell-shaped curve. On the left side you will have a few employees who are struggling to meet expectations, while on the right side you’ll have an equally small group who excels and continuously overshoots the goals and objectives (in workload, performance, employee engagement & interaction, …, whatever the criteria are the organization is using). In the middle of the bell-curve are the vast majority of employees, who perform as they are expected to, sometimes fail but mostly succeed, and carry most of the workload of the company. These are the employees that cause little concern, if the company is able to keep them engaged.

The outliers, the employees on either extreme of the Gaussian distribution curve, are the ones the organization’s leadership should be concerned about.

Those situated left of center, not able to hit the objectives or goals laid out for them, are of obvious concern. Unless the organization can lift their performance, they will continue to be a drag on the company’s execution and output, and negatively impact the results. Leaving the situation unchanged can lead to frustration & disengagement from other more productive team members. The below-standard results of these employees can be noticeable in different ways, for example in failing to reach the minimum output targets for a role, in low engagement with the company and colleagues, in poor working relationships with peers and/or managers, in job-related conflicts or in a complete disconnect with the rest of the team, just to name a few. The first step in remedying the issue should be to address it directly with the employee, to ensure there is a mutual awareness around the issue, to figure out its root cause and to develop a recovery path forward. The initial corrective action should have a constructive, positive basis, rather than a punitive one: at this point it is in the organization’s best interest to try and improve the performance of the employee, as it is likely that a significant amount of money went into recruiting and training the staff member which the company would like to see a return on. And in case of dismissal, more money is likely to be spent again, with no guarantee to success with the new hire. In most cases i will therefore be far less costly and time-consuming to bring the existing employee to the desired performance level than hire a new employee & have that person contribute to expectation. A corrective-action plan should be put together with the employee, with clear tasks, objectives & milestones for improvement in the employee’s performance, but also with clear expectations and action items for the manager or person who is administering the improvement plan. It is crucial that there is continuous interaction, guidance, and feedback between both parties, to ensure all items within the plan are regularly reviewed upon their effectiveness, and adjustments can be made when necessary. Without active leadership engagement in this process, it is likely to fail, not just at the expense of the employee but even more so at the expense of the company.

Just like there are people located on the left edge of the bell-curve, there are also those situated on the right side. These are the organization’s top-performers, the shining stars, the President’s Club winners, ..., they are being referred to in many ways. This group too is a group that deserves a lot of attention and actually should be the organization’s greatest cause of concern. Frequently they are awarded a nice bonus, sometimes a promotion or a token of recognition or appreciation from the company’s leadership. But the big risk with this group is often underestimated or not recognized: these employees are excelling in their current role, and most likely will continue to do so, hence they are left alone (‘don’t fix it if it isn’t broken’). Or they are suddenly promoted and moved to a position higher up in the company’s hierarchy without any preparation or consultation. In the former situation, there is the risk of routine and boredom setting in, as the employee is not learning anything new any more or is no longer being challenged in the role. In the latter example, the staff member now finds her- or himself in a completely new environment, completely unprepared and sometimes not even with their own full support: from being the star they go to having to start all over again, yet with the same high expectations from the leadership teams. Not to say this will not work, but if it does not, it is possible that this employee will soon leave the organization, either disillusioned because of the lack of support or to find a new professional challenge, causing a double hit to the company: not only did they lose a strong performer and are faced with a potentially lengthy and costly replacement process, the reputational damage (internally and externally) to both company and leadership could be significant. The way to prevent this is to provide a career plan to the employee: discuss what the expectations are she or he might have and see how to optimally match those with the company’s organizational and development plans. Maybe the employee is happy in the current role, then find out what she/he can & is willing to contribute additionally to keep the employee’s engagement high while benefiting the organization (maybe providing coaching or training to colleagues is something the employee might consider). If there is an indication the employee wants to move up or into a different direction within the organization, jointly create a development plan, so she/he can learn, be coached and mentored, and be prepared before stepping into a new role. Provide a clear perspective on what is needed when to be successful in this next position. Not only will it increase the chances of retaining the employee, it will also increase the likelihood this employee will remain a committed and engaged star within the organisation for years to come, encouraging others within the organization to follow in hers/his footsteps.

Reviewing your outliers is a continuous process for management, do not wait for the annual process to look into them, as it can be too late by then. If you have not done so recently, probably now is a good time to review your high-potential and challenged employees and start developing the necessary career & action plans.

I2ACT Canada can assist your organization in building action & career plans and in providing your management teams with trainings and tools to successfully manage their teams to better performance. If you want to learn more about the services I2ACT Canada can offer your organization, visit the website or contact Dirk Baerts.


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