The Deadwood Dilemma: Reframing the “Low Performer” Problem

by | Oct 25, 2021

There are few things that incite feelings of injustice at work as the perception of “freeloaders”…low performers, reaping benefit from other people’s work. There is at least one team member who is not pulling their own weight.

This is an accountability issue.

And we’ve found that early in every discussion about accountability and institutional reform, what follows is someone who will ask what they should do with the “deadwood.”

How do you handle low performers under this new world order?

In situations like these, the consultant’s task is to reframe the question to reveal the underlying issues rather than just deal with the surface-level…what we call the “presenting problem.”

The Presenting Problem: Deadwood

A member of the team is underperforming and dragging the whole team’s performance down. The rest of the team is frustrated that this low performer is benefitting without contributing their fair share.

If You Acted On This Definition

If you focus on dealing with “deadwood” then you’ll look at the issue as a performance management issue. You might:

  • Proceed by developing competency models to create objective measures to evaluate the lowest performers
  • Move to make performance improvement targets more clear and self-evident
  • Talk about offering exit packages to aid in “clearing the deadwood.”
pointing finger at low performers

 

Reframe “low performers” as symptomatic of the team’s dysfunctions.

Reframing the “Low Performers” Problem

There is an embedded irony in channeling your focus on fixing the low performers or underachievers.

Why? Because if you’re successful in converting a low performer into a top performer, then another member of the team will have to become the lowest performer.

Oops. The end result is a self-perpetuating cycle.

You see “deadwood” is really not the problem.

So what’s the real “Low Performers” problem?

When you focus on fixing the low performers, you merely shift attention away from the team’s performance.

Sure, individual team members need help at times. But the reality is that if the team was performing well and working well together, then it could easily afford to bring along some “freeloaders.”

The truth is that the problem-person, the low performer, the “deadwood,” is likely to be the victim of projection.

Scapegoating may make us feel better, but goats are rarely the real issue.

“Et Tu, Brute?”

You may be told that the low performers need to get “on board.” That’s an interesting judgment. Why do they think they’re “on board?”

Who is to say the people having you deal with the “deadwood” are not also in that category themselves?

Low Performers reflect the Team

In family therapy, the child who gets all of the negative attention is called the “identified patient.” And that “patient” carries the symptoms of what is really a family problem.

So, when you reframe the “deadwood” dilemma as other than an individual performance management issue you’re able to see that whatever issues are prevalent in the low performers indicate issues in the team as a whole entity. And addressing the dysfunctions in the team will serve to raise the bar for individuals within it.

[Adapted from Peter Block, ‘Twelve Questions to the Most Frequently Asked Answers,’ The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook and Companion: A Guide to Understanding Your Expertise, 2001, pp. 396-397]

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