I often hear from clients about their mediocre performers.

When you hire someone obviously bad, the path forward is simple. You cut the person loose as soon as you realize the problem. When you hire people who are great, the path forward is also simple. You pat them on the back, challenge them to do greater things, then sit back and watch them achieve even more.

But mediocre employees test the mettle of even the best managers. Dealing with mediocrity is a twisted path full of uncertainty and self-doubt for managers.

When you have mediocre performers, you try everything. You look at training, motivation, work environment, interactions with co-workers — everything. You look at yourself and wonder if you are being fair and managing them properly.

And then, when you’ve exhausted that line of inquiry, you start to think about replacing the employee. The moment you start to think about that, the mediocre worker shows you some modest success that gives you a glimmer of hope. So you decide to wait a bit longer and see if the person improves.

But waiting rarely helps. Months of mediocrity go by, until the middling performance aggregates into an even bigger problem that must be addressed. So, patience exhausted and big problems looming, you again start to think about replacing the mediocre person. But then you start noticing what kinds of relationships and institutional knowledge you might lose if the employee left. And you start to think about the risks of hiring.

What if the replacement also turned out to be mediocre? After all, the challenges of the job have grown even larger in the past few months. How long can the position be vacant while you are searching for the replacement? And how will the rest of the organization take it if you replace someone who is not obviously bad? (Did you ever notice that mediocre people seem to have more friends than everyone else?)

Yes, replacing someone mediocre is chaotic in the short term. But long term, it is always the best path forward because an enormous amount of your organization’s mental energy gets trapped when you have someone average in a key role. Subordinates underperform, peers work around the person, and supervisors unconsciously lower their expectations for what can be achieved. When you remove the obstacle, everyone in the organization becomes more productive.

One of the most common things that managers hear when they replace someone mediocre is, “Why did you wait so long?” Because teams know who is not pulling their own weight long before managers do.


This article originally appeared in the Business Journal