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.
"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.
performers is especially
tricky, because they
do perform, if only
episodicallyDo 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.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- On Advice and Responsibility
- Being asked for advice can be an affirming experience, but actually giving advice can sometimes entail
risk. How can this happen, and what choices do we have?
- Devious Political Tactics: Mis- and Disinformation
- Practitioners of workplace politics intent on gaining unfair advantage sometimes use misinformation,
disinformation, and other information-related tactics. Here's a short catalog of techniques to watch for.
- On Snitching at Work: II
- Reporting violations of laws, policies, regulations, or ethics to authorities at work can expose you
to the risk of retribution. That's why the reporting decision must consider the need for safety.
- Unanswerable Questions
- Some questions are beyond our power to answer, but many of us try anyway. What are some of these unanswerable
questions and how can we respond?
- 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.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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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.