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June 14, 2006 Volume 6, Issue 24
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Knife-Edge Performers


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
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
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