As managers, our focus is invariably on keeping the team on track, aligned with one another and the mission. But overall performance can be strongly affected by certain individuals; either by outstanding individuals or by ‘bad apples’. These outliers are key to building the dream team and reducing risk.

So, how can these two extremes be managed to maximise success while eradicating pain points?

I don’t believe there are many real ‘bad apples’ – intrinsically most people want to do well. Traction, by Gino Wickman, approaches the problem in a more useful way. There are three types of underperformers: the wrong person in the right seat; the right person in the wrong seat; and the wrong person in the wrong seat.

Wrong person, right seat

These people might look great on paper, but in practice are a cultural mismatch. To avoid this, keep an eye out for warning signs, for example, staff taking other people outside for ‘chats’ or being negative. You need to confront the individual before it escalates. Negative behaviour can be toxic – your culture risks losing credibility with the rest of the team.

To tackle it, outline behaviours in reviews, providing examples and evidence. Most people will try and overcome this, or leave of their own will if they’re really not a good fit.

Right person, wrong seat

If someone fits the business, but not the role, there are three areas that might be holding them back; self-motivation, self-management, and skills. Often people can be promoted above their capabilities because they show talent in a different role – it’s known as the Peter Principle, that people tend to get promoted to the level of their incompetence. If they have the right motivation and attitude try to up-skill them with training.

If that doesn’t work look at other roles within the company that would suit them better.

It can be tempting to leave your star employees to their own devices. But it’s just as important to help them develop and keep them motivated.

If self-management is the issue, try putting a work-in-progress board above each team member’s desk with all the things they’re working on plus updates. They’re forced to take responsibility for their tasks, and review them regularly!

Wrong person, wrong seat

If someone is wrong for the company and the role, and that doesn’t change, you might need to let them go. In these cases, the most important thing is to do things by the book and be generous to your leaver (with notice periods and so forth), for an easier exit in the long term.

It’s not just about the legal side of things either. Being decent to leavers and keeping them onside (as far as possible) is important for your brand. Disgruntled leavers can cause untold brand damage in the worst cases. When HMV announced mass redundancies to their employees, marketing staff took out their anger publicly on HMV’s own Twitter account.

Right person, right seat…

It can be tempting to leave your star employees to their own devices. But it’s just as important to help them develop and keep them motivated. You will need to invest time to understand the different individuals. I used to manage two guys, one of whom a good ‘talking to’ would always push them to prove themselves, whereas for the other it would cause the other to panic and break down!

Developing goals for high-achievers is important for their development. SMART goals are one option or Traction uses the idea of Rocks with three to seven goals that must be achieved within three months (for companies, teams or individuals).

Continually monitoring progress is an essential part of that goal-setting process. We use Monthly Business Reviews, one-on-ones looking at highlights and issues from last month and defining objectives for the next, and Crucials, weekly actions crucial to the business.

Finally, great staff will need rewards to keep them keen and motivated. Feedback and praise are a huge part of that, but pay, bonuses and, perhaps most importantly, promotion, should also be considered. This is especially important for junior staff – if there’s no progression available, you will get leavers.

Develop a clear promotion framework with bands of salary – once an individual is at the top of their band, progress them to another responsibility. If someone has progressed as far as they can go in the framework, how about letting them manage key areas like a new product launch, giving them real independence and responsibility?

Where some underperformers can be ‘culture terrorists’, your star performers can fulfil the opposite role, illustrating what success looks like and inspiring others in the team.

Depending on your business culture, perhaps think about creating some friendly competition, for example, have screens showing people’s achievements against their targets.

In the end it’s all about culture and values, ensuring that your culture enables success, validates achievement, but also challenges underperformance. Both underperformers and high-achievers play a vital role in realising the culture that emerges in practice – as a manager it’s your job to make sure everyone’s moving in the right direction.


Bridget is our senior editor, she likes to write about web and marketing mostly. You can reach her at