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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

How to Manage an "Average" Employee

As a manager or leader, you have a great opportunity to shape the experience of those on your team. You're in the perfect spot to find out what makes them tick, positively impact their growth, and open up the road ahead of them so they can do their best work.

But when everybody's busting a gut in the interest of doing great work, the guy who's coasting along and doing "average" work easily stands out. Always leaving the office on time, not delivering anything over and above what's expected, and stubbornly refusing to excel, his apparent lack of investment in the job can give you a delicate and thorny problem to deal with.

Urging your “average” performers to step up and deliver or giving them a blistering personnel review won't help one bit, so here are three better ways to navigate the situation.

1. Ask Them What Matters

Just because an employee doesn't seem to get lit up by work doesn't mean he or she doesn't get lit up by anything.

Maybe his family means everything, and he saves his energy and love for that part of his life. Maybe she has a rich creative life, and her job enables her to embrace what she loves in her free time. Or maybe he’s saving money so he can start up a nonprofit or travel the world.

Knowing a little bit about what matters to your staffers not only gives you a better insight into what truly motivates them, but gives you both the opportunity to see if there's a way they can bring what matters to them to their work.

There might be a richly creative project your data analyst can get involved with and make a real difference to. Perhaps the dad on your team would feel a sense of value and contribution by helping to shape flexible working guidelines. Or maybe your office manager would be open to greater responsibility in another part of the organization that resonates with her.

Helping your team members to find a way to honor what matters to them in the job may simply mean respecting their boundaries, but it just might transform their experience and work, too.

2. Watch For Blame

They say that a team is only as strong as its weakest link, and for some that's cause enough for finger-pointing and blame. You didn't pull your weight. Where were you when we were busting our butts? Everyone did a great job, except for you.

A team comprises different people, each of whom will have different strengths, speeds, talents, interests, priorities, and needs, and singling out a member of the team for a perceived weakness is only going to drag the whole team down.

An "average" employee might also be your most reliable, steady, and longest tenured employee, so before you—or someone in your team—label and blame, be sure to consider the whole picture rather than looking at a single measure of an employee’s value.

In other words, if you see Larry from Accounts blame Lynda from Payroll for not pulling her weight, by all means see if there’s something Lynda can improve upon or do differently, but also invite Larry to do the same on his side, potentially helping to find a solution that works for everyone. In this way, keeping your eyes open to the bubbling up of ill-will or blame among your group is essential, as is holding a view of the bigger picture.

3. Leave the Memes At Home

It's tempting and easy to believe that today's business world demands excellence, and in many ways it does (excellence in service, value, and ethics, for example). But, it's dangerous to conflate that belief with the expectation that every employee has to over-deliver and excel.

We've become so preoccupied with business growth, results, success, and excellence (and sometimes merely the appearance of those things) that we forget about the texture of experience itself. I'd argue that an organization that considers, respects, and enhances the texture of experience of its employees will get far better results than one that goes all-out-hell-for-leather-all-guns-blazing toward a result or goal at the cost of its employees.

What's really so bad with average? Doesn't "average" mean that everything's going pretty good? Why does "average" have to be a label that's synonymous with "disappointing?” Iconaclastic CEO Jason Fried asks similar questions in his book Rework: "What is it about growth and business? Why is expansion always the goal? What's the attraction of big besides ego?"

Assuming the meme of "excellence at all costs" creates an environment where subjective comparisons and judgments will be made at every level about the value or worth of each employee, and that's an environment where many will be stifled before given the chance to flourish.

Have you found yourself needing to manage an "average" employee? Or maybe you've found yourself being "managed?” Share your experience in the comments.

Photo of manager and employee courtesy of Shutterstock.