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You’re a manager who oversees seven employees: two are underperforming, one is your star, and the rest deliver what they’re supposed to but not much more.
How much time do you spend with each? Common sense would suggest you spend most of your time with the struggling employees to get them back on track, since your other employees are doing well.
The opposite, however, is true, argue Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman in their classic management guide, “First, Break All the Rules.”
When the book was first published in 1999, it was controversial in the HR community, Buckingham told Business Insider, because it advocated for approaches that were, in cases like the one mentioned here, the opposite of what generations of managers had been taught. The coauthors weren’t acting on intuition; rather, they had derived their conclusions from 25 years of Gallup studies of 80,000 managers across 400 companies.
Over time, more companies began adopting Buckingham and Coffman’s prescribed approach, and now companies like Facebook operate entirely on their philosophy. Facebook HR chief Lori Goler recommends their book to all new managers.
The authors write that when a manager spends time with an employee, “they are not fixing or correcting or instructing. Instead they are racking their brains, trying to figure out better and better ways to unleash that employee’s distinct talents.”
Their top performers are the ones who drive progress at the company, and that is why they need the most attention. Managers must “carve out a unique set of expectations,” “highlight and perfect each person’s unique style,” and do whatever they can to assist their employees in achieving their goals.
If managers are spending most of their day working with their worst team members on these three objectives, then perhaps they are fighting a losing battle and these employees need to be let go, the coauthors argue. And this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. They write that, “if you pay the most attention to your strugglers and ignore your stars, you can inadvertently alter the behaviors of your stars. Guided by your apparent indifference, your stars may start to do less of what made them stars in the first place and more of other kinds of behaviors that might net them some kind of reaction from you, good or bad.”
“Counterintuitively, employees who are already performing above average have the greatest room for growth,” the authors write. “Great managers also know that it is hard work helping a talented person hone his talents. If a manager is preoccupied by the burden of transforming the strugglers into survivors by helping them squeak above ‘average,’ he will have little time left for the truly difficult work of guiding the good toward the great.”