HR & Management

Mediocre employees
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Why mediocre employees can kill a business

7 Mins

Businesses often suffer an injection of mediocre employees as the company scales – after rapid growth, headcount is needed to meet demand. Mediocre employees are hard to spot if you’re the boss, although if you work for someone mediocre it’s as clear as day – and we’ve all experienced that.

I’ve seen mediocrity seep in at businesses throughout my career, and to some extent I’ve negotiated the same problem at XLN. We are growing, because I have all the right people that believe in our high-performance culture. But after the early years of aggressive growth, it hasn’t been plain sailing. We grew up fast, and a little mediocrity crept in – the trick is being able to identify it.

Mediocre employees can drag your top performers down with them

Like many businesses that get bigger quickly, I hired some great people, but also some whose performance fell over time. In many cases, I had a feeling that those ultimately average employees weren’t right for the business as soon as I brought them in – and in hindsight, one thing I’ve learnt is this: if it feels wrong, it almost certainly is. And while many of the great people are still with me, the mediocre have, at times, stalled our progress.

It goes without saying that mediocre employees will produce less, innovate less and strive less. They won’t be there at 6.15pm pushing for that last sale, and they won’t go out of their way to solve a customer’s problem. But what’s sometimes overlooked is how not taking action over mediocre performers can affect your top performers. I’ve seen the consequences first-hand.

Say, for example, you have a customer service team all on the same salary. Your top performers inevitably pull the heavy load, but in spite of this they are paid the same, and treated the same, as the lesser performers. And over time, this affects their attitude, and indeed, their performance.

Their satisfaction has now been eroded – they don’t feel valued. Then they start to not enjoy their work, and soon enough they contemplate leaving. Meanwhile, the unchallenged mediocre employees remain. Ultimately, mediocrity has won, and your business is far worse off for it.

This is why we need to move beyond the idea that dealing with mediocre employees is controversial. Of course, training and development should be your first option. Furthermore, the scenario presented above shows that it’s essential to reward your “A players”. I’ve been doing that for years, and it continues to pay dividends. But if an employee doesn’t improve and is holding your business back, you need to take action. You owe it to your business – and you owe it to your best employees, too.

Sometimes, character traits are too deep-rooted to be altered

Another thing I’ve learnt in getting XLN back to its best is that some people won’t change – they can’t. I’ve always tried to give people opportunities to improve, and incentives to get better, but in some cases you’re simply wasting your time.

From my experience, people’s attitudes and characters are rigidly unchangeable from around age 17. Some behavioural scientists actually suggest our personalities are fully formed as early as age seven. So it’s little wonder that I have struggled in the past to change some employees’ attitudes. If they’re lazy at 17, they’re lazy at 37.

My view in these situations is that you’re not only helping your business by getting rid of employees who aren’t performing, you’re also helping the employee in question. There will be a job that better suits their deep-rooted set of personality traits. And if you aren’t getting the best out of them, and their performance can’t be improved, how is keeping them beneficial for anyone? Far from being unfair, letting them go could do them a big favour.

How can anyone match your own ambition?

As a final note, it’s worth mentioning a fundamental problem that I and any entrepreneur faces when hiring: how do I find people that care as much about this as me?

For us, it’s everything. Nothing is boring, no challenge is too great, and no obstacle is too big. Every little step or change is exciting, and even the bad news only fuels us to work harder. We have a fire in us that doesn’t go out.

Now, how do you find a customer service advisor that feels the same way? Or an accounts assistant? Or a software developer?

Well, there’s no simple answer to this dilemma. But it comes down to taking everyone on a journey. It’s about why you do what you do, not simply what you do. It’s about your story, and everyone’s part in it.

What I’ve learnt at XLN is that you don’t have to settle for mediocre because someone doesn’t match your own ambition. There will always be someone else out there that shares your hunger – so go out and find them. Good enough is never good enough if you want your business to keep growing.

This article is part of a wider campaign called Founders Diaries, a section of Real Business that brings together 20 inspiring business builders to share their stories. Bringing together companies from a wide variety of sectors and geographies, each columnist produces a diary entry each month. Visit the Founders Diaries section to find out more.

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