A Tale of Two Paths

Today’s topic has been on my backlog for a while. Over the years, I’ve had countless mentoring conversations with managers struggling with handling an underperforming employee. Often I find they drag their heels and are hesitant to take action, as I have done with bringing this topic to my blog. While these are complex and uncomfortable conversations, they can be transformative for everyone involved.

My Most Memorable Case

Early in my leadership career, I moved to a new team, and one of the developers on the team was struggling. The prior manager was deeply apologetic because he never gave the developer feedback.

I approached the situation with fresh eyes and devoted three months to supporting the developer in every way possible. I mentored and coached him to the best of my ability and ensured he got appropriate peer support. I was optimistic that I could help him thrive on our team. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

I vividly remember our conversation when I told the developer this wasn’t working out. I watched as he breathed a sigh of relief throughout his entire body and said, “I can’t believe it’s taken this long for anyone to say anything.” I was stunned. I expected my news to be a surprise to him. This developer had spent nearly two years struggling in a role, giving his best and knowing it wasn’t good enough.

This story has a happy ending for both the developer and the company. The developer found a role working with the programming language he knew well, and he went from underperformance on my team to high performance at another organization. With his departure, I could hire a new developer who was a better fit for the role. That was a good hire. He went on to become the CTO.

A Tale of Two Paths

When I work with someone who has never dealt with underperformance, I tell them my tale of two paths. The image above is a staple of that story, and if you have heard this story from me, I suspect the image alone told you what was coming.

My philosophy always begins on the first path (symbolized by my left hand). You are fully invested in this path as long as you believe this person can succeed in their role. You leave no stone unturned in supporting the employee to flourish. You mentor, coach, and provide training and regular feedback. It’s the right thing to do for the employee. It’s the right thing to do for yourself as a leader. It’s the right thing to do for the company.

The key is to realize when you’ve started down the other path (symbolized by my right hand). As soon as you realize you’re on that path and this employee will not be successful in the current role, I encourage you to move swiftly. The most common mistake I see from leaders is that they continue to wander the left path for months, even after realizing this is the wrong fit. I imagine my developer above struggling in full awareness, just waiting for someone to point it out.

Once you’ve realized this isn’t a fit, you owe it to the employee, your team, and your company to have the difficult conversation and make a change. Help them find a role that is better suited to their strengths. Help your organization by finding someone who is a better fit for your needs.

Putting It Into Practice

When you recognize an employee is struggling, follow these steps to support them:

  • Acknowledge the gap between current performance and expectations. Give your employee clear feedback.
  • Invest fully in the left-hand path. Make it a top priority to support this employee in their learning and growth to close the gap.
  • Continue to give the employee regular feedback, reinforcing the behaviors you want them to continue and redirecting the behaviors you want them to change.
  • If they succeed, celebrate!
  • If you find yourself headed down the right-hand path, take deliberate action. Once you conclude that this employee will not succeed in their current role, it is time to make a change.

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