Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 24;   June 14, 2006: Knife-Edge Performers

Knife-Edge Performers

by

Some employees deliver performance episodically, while some deliver steady, but barely adequate performance. Either way, they keep their managers drained and anxious, on the "knife edge" of terminating them. How can you detect knife-edge performers, and what can you do about them?

Carol opened the door of Mike's Restaurant and stepped inside. It was good to come in out of the heat, and the lunchtime smells inside Mike's were even better. Andy was waving to her from a booth, and she walked back and slid onto the seat opposite him.

A knife edge"So?" Andy began. "Something wrong?" He was a little worried — Carol had asked him to meet at Mike's with no real explanation.

"Just a little," she said. "I've had it with Geoff. I've had it."

"Oh that," Andy said. "You sound ready to do it."

"I'm teetering," she said. "Give me a push."

"Well," said Andy, "remember two things. One, nobody is ever really ready to fire somebody. And Two, Geoff will probably do something he thinks is just brilliant enough to save himself."

Geoff's performance has been troubling Carol for almost two years. Whenever Carol moves close to acting, Geoff does something good enough to make that action difficult. He's kept Carol on the knife-edge, but Andy has just given Carol the encouragement she was seeking.

Terminating knife-edge
performers is especially
tricky, because they
do perform, if only
episodically
Do you supervise someone whose performance keeps you on the knife-edge of taking action? Here are some tips for detecting knife-edge performers.

Performance is episodic
Stellar contributions that alternate with barely-adequate or unacceptable performance, and correlate with your level of frustration, are hallmarks of knife-edge performers. They tend to deliver not when it's needed, but when they sense that you're about to act.
Your own level of performance is suffering
Your own edginess or nervousness can be an indicator of a troubled subordinate. Knife-edge performance is a distraction. Supervisors who spend too much time managing a problem subordinate tend to let other issues slide.
The subordinate has transferred into your domain
Sometimes managers deal with problem subordinates by transferring them elsewhere. This is especially tempting with knife-edge performers, because the episodes of high performance make termination tricky.

What can you do about knife-edge performers?

Consult with your HR representative
The procedures for termination, probation, or transfer are usually specific, because law and regulation constrain your choices. Since you'll probably need detailed documentation, get started on that immediately. Documenting will also help you gain perspective.
Choose a solution that's actually a solution
Unless the problem is specifically job-related, transferring someone just shifts the burden elsewhere. And probation often just defers the problem to a later date. Termination is the best choice, if it's possible and within the guidelines.
Transfer yourself
Some groups are actually parking lots for troubled employees. They might contain several knife-edge performers. If this describes your situation, move on — rarely is such a job helpful to your career.

As a manager, how you deal with a knife-edge performer is part of your own performance. Do your best not to become a knife-edge performer yourself. Go to top Top  Next issue: On Organizational Coups d'Etat  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenVSgWhVNgImTgwvzKner@ChacnnSQbVbuyendgLwgoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

A rhinestone-decorated pacifierDevious Political Tactics: The False Opportunity
Workplace politics can make any environment dangerous, both to your career and to your health. This excerpt from my little catalog of devious political tactics describes the false opportunity, which appears to be a chance to perform, to contribute, or to make a real difference. It's often something else.
The 171st graduating class of the Massachusetts Firefighting AcademyHow to Get a Promotion: the Inside Stuff
Do you think you're overdue for a promotion? Many of us are, but are you doing all you can to make it happen? Start with a focus on you.
Washington Irving, American author, 1783-1859Extrasensory Deception: I
Negotiation skills are increasingly essential in problem-solving workplaces. When incentives are strong, or pressure is high, deception is tempting. Here are some of the deceptions popular among negotiators.
A fiddler crab, resident of the Ashepoo Combahee Edisto (ACE) Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve in South Carolina, USACommunication Traps for Virtual Teams: II
Communication can be problematic for any team, especially under pressure. But virtual teams face challenges that are less common in face-to-face teams. Here's Part II of a little catalog with some recommendations.
The freshman class of the 2012 U.S. CongressSocial Entry Strategies: II
When we first engage with a group at work, we employ social entry strategies to make places for ourselves to carry out our responsibilities, and to find enjoyment and fulfillment at work. Here's Part II of a little catalog of social entry strategies.

See also Workplace Politics and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Office equipment — or is it office toys?Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
Tim Murphy, official photo for the 112th CongressAnd on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenrktptkxgbVRTiUrTner@ChacZUHcReEgwmfCaOhfoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.