The Alchemy of Org Building: A Team for the Long Term – How to Prevent Desperate Manager Syndrome

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My team was overworked, I was not achieving my goals, and a sense of helplessness was seeping in.  I was desperate to get out of this hole by staffing up my team and retaining existing staff.  That’s when it happened … average job applicants started to look stellar and underperforming employees started to look indispensable.

I had Desperate Manager Syndrome.  I was about to commit one or both of the two cardinal sins of people management … hiring too soon or holding on too long, in both cases lowering the standards for employees and for the organization.

Truth is, this is a situation I and every other manager has found themselves in countless times.  What can we do about it?

Hiring too soon. 

Desperate Manager Syndrome is insidious.  With every candidate you reject, you don’t even notice the pressure mounting to lower your standards.  You see how overworked your team is, you feel horrible about it, and you start to convince yourself … the candidate is good enough.

The problem is, hiring good people into great teams is a fast track to mediocrity. The creative energy and daily productivity of the team eventually takes a hit. They respond to your unintentional message – good is now good enough, and, quietly, slowly, standards are loosened.  Eventually, your best people start leaving in hopes of working with an amazing team again.  And it all starts with one decision that a candidate is good enough.

Here are some approaches to avoid this trap:

  • Self-Awareness.  Acknowledge you are at risk; all managers are!  Check in with yourself … are you truly excited about what this candidate will bring to your team?  If not, walk away.
  • Rigor.  Spend the time to define and document the qualities of the ideal candidate, train your team to identify those qualities, and develop a rigorous interview process that you follow consistently.  (Learn more about our process for DNA hiring in Global Services.)
  • Deliberate.  Encourage rigorous debate among the interview team.  Avoid group think by challenging people’s thinking and not stating your own opinion up front.  If perspectives arise you aren’t totally comfortable with, bring the candidate back for another discussion.
  • Culture.  Talk to your team frequently about the importance of hiring well.  Build it into the culture – we only hire the best! This gives them context (and patience!) for why an open position may stay open for a while and encourages everyone to keep the bar high.

Holding on too long.

The flip side of Desperate Manager Syndrome is when you hold on too long to an underperforming employee.  The driver is the same … you’re anxious about your team’s capacity to achieve its goals; managing out the employee doesn’t seem to be ROI positive (especially if they have a unique skill set); and so you start to compromise … the underperforming employee is good enough.

Yet, as with hiring too soon, the cost of holding on too long is deceptively high.  Managing underperformers is not only time consuming, but you also get less in return than when investing in high performers.  Furthermore, there is always a distribution curve of performance in a team.  On that curve, employee performance regresses to the mean over time because employees tend to mirror each other’s behavior.  So “good enough” employees lower the mean, dragging your high performers down with them.

So what can we do?

  • Invest.  As managers, our greatest leverage isn’t hiring the perfect person, it’s getting the very best out of the people we have.  So we must invest.  However, part of that investment is being extremely clear with the employee where they are not meeting expectations and agreeing on a path forward.
  • Assess.  Our investment should be proportional to our employee’s ability to change and grow.  As you are investing in them, ask yourself honestly — can the employee truly meet my performance expectations in a reasonable timeframe? Would I hire this person again knowing what I know now?  If not, it’s probably time move on.
  • Moving-On.  You hired this person because you thought they were great.  So it’s worth exploring – is there another role where they can be great?  Role transitions can definitely work.  However, the key word is “great!”  If they cannot be truly successful somewhere else, it’s time to move on.

Thinking long term.

Desperate Manager Syndrome is a natural response to fear.  We are afraid we won’t achieve our goals if we don’t hire soon enough or if we fire too soon.  Our minds tend to focus on short term costs rather than long term benefits.  Just acknowledging that is an important first step.  It creates space to step back, let go of the anxiety, refuse to be “good enough,” and make the courageous decision to accept pain now to achieve greatness later.

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See all postings from Brandon’s “Alchemy of Org Building” blog here.

 

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