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.

Balancing on 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? rbrenxEBQIXVixLBMZPMXner@ChacKiPQTgPpvUibskxGoCanyon.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:

CornThe "What-a-Great-Idea!" Trap
You just made a great suggestion at a meeting, and ended up with responsibility for implementing it. Not at all what you had in mind, but it's a trap you've fallen into before. How can you share your ideas without risk of getting even more work to do?
An orchid mantis (Hymenopus coronatus) perched on an orchidPassive Deceptions at Work
Among the vast family of workplace deceptions, those that involve camouflage are both the most common and the most difficult to detect. Here's a look at how passive camouflage can play a role in workplace deception.
Elia Kazan, award winning film directorOn Snitching at Work: Part I
Some people have difficulty determining the propriety of reporting violations to authorities at work. Proper or not, reporting violations can be simultaneously both risky and necessary.
The Niagara River and cantilever bridgeBottlenecks: Part I
Some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks." The people around them repeatedly find themselves stuck, awaiting responses or decisions. Why does this happen and what are the costs?
Harry S. Truman (front, second from left) and Joseph Stalin (front, left) meeting at the Potsdam Conference on July 18, 1945Suppressing Dissent: Part II
Disagreeing with the majority in a meeting, or in some cases, merely disagreeing with the Leader, can lead to isolation and other personal difficulties. Here is Part II of a set of tactics used by Leaders who choose not to tolerate differences of opinion, emphasizing the meeting context.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Many different viewpoints make for many different choicesComing January 18: On Differences and Disagreements
When we disagree, it helps to remember that our differences often seem more marked than they really are. Here are some hints for finding a path back to agreement. Available here and by RSS on January 18.
Firefighter lighting grass using a drip torchAnd on January 25: How to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: Part I
When new problems pop up one after the other, we describe our response as "firefighting." We move from fire to fire, putting out flames. How can we end the madness? Available here and by RSS on January 25.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenbIHnWwoBJWDQbVsZner@ChacTfYpJIRocmFMZHWToCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, 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

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Conflict Resolution Skills for Leaders
ConflConflict Resolution Skills for Leadersict is inherent in collaborative work. When conflict is constructive, it produces better outcomes. When it's destructive, it can be an insurmountable obstacle to success. In this program, we explore the connections between the outcomes of collaboration and conflict in both of its forms. And we emphasize the skills needed most by leaders. The leader's task is to manage conflict so as to ensure that the group achieves its objective with its capacity to collaborate intact, or even enhanced. Rick Brenner shows team leaders and team sponsors the techniques they need to manage team conflict for relationship safety and better outcomes. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Influencing Outcomes Without Authority
Your Influencing Outcomes Without Authorityability to influence others — whether upward, downward, laterally, or within a team — always depends on both the quality of your relationships with the people you influence, and on your perception and their perception of your personal power. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you the techniques for making things happen not by using formal organizational power, but by using informal, personal power. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Times
When Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Timesa project team is on task, the contributions of leaders are important, and little noticed. Sometimes the team encounters unexpected difficulty, or requirements change, or budgets are reduced, or any of a number of other things might happen. In these cases, the leader must make or facilitate decisions about how to respond or how to revise the plan. We get through it somehow. Hard times are something else altogether. Despondency, disillusionment, resource shortages, unexpected and severe failure of the plan, and toxic conflict can erode morale. How can leaders deal with such situations? Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for 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.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…

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.