Your Great (But Struggling) Employee

Your Great (But Struggling) Employee

September 28, 2021

You may enjoy this short, summary video.

Toxic vs. Tonic

I’ve written quite a bit about toxic employees. We’ve all worked with them. They can be ruthlessly competitive, steal credit from their colleagues, cause tension and gossip, and more. No matter how productive they are, if coaching and improvement plans fail, they must go.  They are too damaging to the rest of the organization.

But what about a team-member who is an amazing asset to the culture? Someone generous toward the rest of the team—who truly cares and shows it. But….

Recently one of my clients struggled with just such a team-member. Let’s call him Daniel.

Team Player

Daniel is an engineer. His functional skills are extraordinary and benefit the whole organization. Because of his ability and tenure, he has been promoted to higher positions. But senior roles come with greater complexity and responsibility. There are reports to write, urgent customer needs, and administrative work at every step of the process.. That’s not all. To lead and succeed he must manage and document complex projects from the beginning all the way to the end. That means no unfinished fragments. And it needs to be done on time.

Daniel struggles with all of that.

He doesn’t complete reports, gets distracted by requests for help from his colleagues, and fails to return to the task at hand. Because of that he forgets to call people back on time and is generally mediocre at fulfilling those parts of his job.

When projects fall behind— or just seem to because the report isn’t complete—the scorecard for the entire engineering team dips. It sometimes looks (from the numbers) like the team is failing. But, nonetheless, the engineering team loves him for his expertise and generosity.  Their work and morale would suffer if he were gone.

But the fallout from his negligence affects them. When their scorecard scores go down, so do their individual performance ratings.

Amazingly, the team is so generous that they barely weigh that as a significant cost.

Executive Strategy

Still, the executive team is frustrated with the situation. Daniel’s manager has created daily planning meetings with him to sketch out each day’s plan. But, whenever he isn’t carefully managed things go a bit sideways.

Unlike toxic employees, Daniel is open to the feedback. He wants to improve. So, he tries again and again to nail tasks that are hard for him. Sadly, it’s doesn’t seem like he will master the demands of his job.

Is there a way both to keep Daniel and stop the fallout from his weaknesses?

I heard about an interesting model to assess employees, and it works well here. It came from Danny Meyer, the founder Union Square Hospitality and Shake Shack.

Willing and Able

Consider the following graph.









The value of an employee comes down to two basic criteria: ability and willingness. Great employees are both excellent at their job responsibilities and great members of the team. They elevate the quality of work and the cohesiveness of the culture.

The ideal employee falls in the bottom right quadrant of the graph. They can and they will perform and positively participate.

Toxic employees—those who have great skill or ability, but leave their colleagues damaged or job-hunting — they fall in the top right quadrant. They can but they won’t. And of course, you aren’t likely to hire those from the top left quadrant. They’re incompetent and recalcitrant

Willing, Sorta Able

But what about Daniel and others like him? They fall at the very bottom right side of the bottom left quadrant. They mostly can and will.

It’s obvious that there are basically two key areas of the graph. Anyone on the bottom is valuable –on the surface.


And anyone in the top half elicits a caution. They may be unhealthy for the organization.

The Daniels of the world are firmly in the bottom half. Assets.

My client has tried training, coaching and structure to help Daniel. He is improving, but still having a hard time. It’s difficult to swim upstream, working against your innate weaknesses.

Is it hopeless?

I joined the executive team to think this through. Something clicked.



Were We Wrong?

When leaders find themselves in a quandary like this, it’s a good time to ask a basic question.

If he were a job candidate today –knowing all we know now– would we hire him?

If the answer is no, them the next step is obvious. Let him go.

But, if the answer is yes, “we’d do it again”, why?

Instead of focusing on weaknesses, we are now focusing on strengths. He is valuable because of what he does well. Trying to fix him is hopeless, because even if he can improve, he will never be great in those areas.

But his strengths are legion. How can we leverage them so that he and the organization thrive?

Going back to the beginning, if they hired him today, why would they do that? The answer emerged naturally. They would hire him for a different job. That role would leverage his strengths and demand fewer demands of his weaknesses.

The solution was simple (albeit, probably not easy). Change his job.

Instead of futilely trying to run complex projects, he’d use his amazing problem-solving skills to help colleagues and customers. He could relieve blockages for the engineers and restore success. And he was there for customers’ emergencies.

Daniel could be the SWAT team. It didn’t mean a demotion (which would be insulting and probably disastrous). Instead, it was a sideways move that exploited his strengths.

The lessons

  • Assess your employee on the Can/Will graph?
  • If they are in the bottom right quadrant? Consider a performance improvement plan (PIP)
  • Focus on strengths, not weaknesses
  • Ask, would we hire him today?
  • If yes, double down on PIP or rethink their role.

We never want to give up on someone great. Especially those in the bottom quadrant who want to learn and succeed.  Apply a calculus. Look for a role in which their strengths are worth more than the cost of their weaknesses.  Be creative and everyone will win.




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