The Zen riddle of hiring and performance management is trying to distinguish individual performance from team performance.

Over time, on any team, the stronger people will tend to draw the tougher assignments, the more productive people will tend to draw the bigger projects, and the smarter people will tend to draw the more complex problems. Managers might view that as good delegation, but team members often view it more like Dilbert, who calls it the curse of competence.

To hire effectively, keep in mind that everyone on a well-managed team tends to look good to outsiders. They even look good to themselves. Research shows that the least competent people are often among the most confident in their own abilities. (This profoundly disturbing finding is called the Dunning-Kruger effect.)

To lead effectively, be aware of the potential for your least competent team members to float along, borrowing from the competence of their team (and feeling chock-full of unwarranted confidence). As Warren Buffet observed, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who has been swimming naked.” (He was referring to people who did well in a bull stock market, but the principle holds….)

Distinguishing who is driving and who is coasting will help you guard against the simplemindedness of “peanut butter management” – spreading the credit around evenly, like you would spread peanut butter on a sandwich.

Zone of competence

A leader must understand that surrounding every top performer is a “zone of incompetence” that poor performers can coast along  within. Inside that wonderful zone, other team members can relax a bit, focus on other work, and even make mistakes. The top performer will pick up the slack, do more than her share, and correct small mistakes without any fuss. Everyone on the team ends up looking competent, but, of course not everyone actually is competent. Working with great people is enjoyable. It frees us to focus on those tasks at which we are most competent ourselves, because we know someone else will certainly take care of what we overlook. But it hides a multitude of sins. 

Collaboration works best when we recognize where individual performance stops and where the team environment deserves some of the credit

Here’s how to do that:

  • If you are an employee on a great team, don’t let it all go to your head. Be careful not to assume you can be equally successful in another environment. Appreciate and enjoy the career boost you are getting from your association with the team.
  • If you are an employee on a bad team, seriously consider joining another team where your odds of success are far higher. See this test for when it’s time to quit your job.
  • If you manage a team, be sure to recognize individual achievement. This can be as simple as saying, “Sue, it’s great that you took care of that issue so that everyone else could focus on their other goals!” A lovely side-effect: If you give credit where it’s due, less competent people have no opportunity to take false credit.
  • When hiring people, don’t overlook the context of someone’s achievement. If someone is highly successful, we unwittingly attribute much of his personal success to his innate ability. But we usually fail to recognize that less-obviously-successful people might possess even better skills. They were simply saddled with a less effective team.
  • In managing performance, don’t be deluded by the superficial. In his brilliant book about WordPress, Scott Berkun wrote, “The real story behind some people you meet with fantastic reputations isn’t notable talents or skills, but merely an exceptional ability to choose the right time to join and leave particular projects. The work of managers everywhere is rarely evaluated with enough consideration for the situation they inherited and the situations they faced that were not in their control.” And, as Doug Shaw wisely observed, “Good work often reveals itself slowly.