The Myth of the Turnaround Employee

I cant remember how often I’ve heard stories like the one I just heard from a good friend of mine. He had introduced me to a person who by all accounts was courteous and professional and an all-around good guy. After he left the room I got “The Story.” We’ve all heard it too many times. It starts off with this phrase or something similar: “That guy used to be such a problem…” or “I really didn’t like her when she first reported to work for me back in 95…” and then they lay it on you: how through considerable effort and some good old-fashined mentoring, the person finally got it and turned around and “now look at them.” They are productive and have advanced to management or leadership positions themselves. Another save. Heartwarming, isn’t it? ….Well, it just makes me want to smack somebody.

The unaccounted for variable in all these stories, from the “look what my caring leadership and mentoring has produced” series, are the other ten people that worked for you back in 95. What happened to them? What happened to your top three performers that you ignored while you were paying attention to your fixer-upper? Because something definitely happened to them – while you may have thought you were doing a good and noble thing, I personally believe you screwed up royal. If you have one of these stories of your own – then you might have fallen victim to the three myths of the turnaround employee:

Myth #1:

Your top performers don’t need attention – they are already doing a great job. Entirely untrue: John James was right: The deepest human need is to be appreciated. Like or not, that time and attention – including closed door mentoring sessions with your worst – was noticed (and noticeably absent) from your best. What the top three learned from you back in 95 was that it didn’t mater how well they performed, your attention was reserved for the person they were taking up the slack for. Instead of getting better, instead of thinking they we’re invaluable, instead of knowing they we’re delivering the best of what you needed – they felt at least moderately ignored. Perhaps that’s why they moved on to another firm in 98? The ten minutes you spent with them trying to talk them out of it was more time than they had gotten in years – and was too little too late.

Myth #2

Direct attention and mentoring is what under-performers need most. Hogwash. If managed correctly, poor performance is a self-correcting behavior. What if we flipped the model? What if we took Marcus Buckinghams advice and largely ignored the bad performers in favor of time and attention to the best? Gallups research of top performing managers shows that this is exactly what they do. The under-performers have the opportunity to see what is working for the others, and either get on board – or get gone. Pay attention to what you want most and you get it.

Myth #3:

Its my job to train and bring ALL on my team up to speed; even the bad ones. Myth three sounds good – and I would agree – except it isn’t actually possible. Or, at least it isn’t possible by “fixing” the bad ones. Even in organizations where you are at the mercy of recruiting or HR, it is a myth that you need everyone on the team to be a good performer. You actually CAN afford to NOT have the poor performers “get it”. Everyone else is working harder, and resenting it, because they are on the team (and getting paid – often the same as your best – to be bad at the work). They are taking a spot that might be filled by someone who isn’t slack and everyone knows it. The faster they get gone, the faster someone else gets a shot. This doesn’t mean you give up on them entirely, just don’t give them too much of your time.

(Note: Best mentoring available to a poor performer is to point at your top three performers and say “Watch them,….act like that. Any questions?” then move on. Hint: let your top three hear you say it.)

Bonus Myth:

The turnaround employee is really that good. Not usually. There is a difference between a great team member, and one that simply doesn’t stink any more. I’ve met plenty of the “used-to-stink” variety and the only thing remarkable about most of them is that they don’t stink anymore. What prize does the organization get for all of this quality attention and mentoring required to “save” the also-rans and turn them into – well – average? What you get is an ever decreasing pool of top performers.

The number one missing part of any story of the turnaround employee is that for every one turned around, at least two that were great already were turned away. No favors were done to the organization, the mission wasn’t served, and neither was the person you “saved.” They learned that mediocre is enough. And now you’ve helped Mediocre advance enough to be in charge, while Great has left the building. Thanks. But next time – no thank you.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Excellent blog post, Mario. Seriously, EVERY manager should have a copy of this succinct account of how to build a successful team.

What do you think about the myth that “the bad apples spoil the whole bunch?” Put another way, what if a few partygoers, if left unchecked despite being loud and obnoxious, cause the others to leave? Some employees stay on for years and get an increase even through they turn in poor performance. In many ways, this is a demotivator for other, hard-working team members. Eager to get your feedback on this notion.

Again, tremendous post.


Delete Comment #3!!! Where to start? As an HR professional, I have seen managers who oftentimes also DON’T bother to provide the troublesome employee with work expectations and performance evaluations (oftentimes these evals will contradict what they tell HR). As you mentioned, that troublesome employee’s workload ends up going to their co-workers. This creates much resentment and frustration with the performing employees who oftentimes feel as though they are being penalized for doing their job — as by meeting expectations gets them additional work with little or no recognition (verbal, awards, monetary, etc.). In some situations, your mediocre (as well as star) employees become the troublesome employee as they continually see underperforming employees stay gainfully employed…they figure they can work less and still have a job to go to!

And then you find yourself at the #1 myth!!

Henry Brown

All very true BUT suspect that the myths will go on UNTIL someone breaks the cycle. People get promoted to the next level of management because the people who promote them believe that all these myths are truisms. and they believe that the supervisor is doing a good job by promoting/implementing these management philosophies. And because the promoted individual believes (correctly I might add) that one of the reasons he got the promotion was their implementation skills of these myths they look for the same type of supervisors to join their teams. and on and on and on…


One point I like in this story is that we can’t do it all. Sometimes we buy into the myth that we can do everything whether it is at home or at work. You can truly not give everyone the same attention at the workplace. And if you do, you are spending very little attention on everyone. Instead organizations should probably a basic small foundation for employees and then identify and focus on the true game-changers doing great work.

Peter G. Tuttle

Great posting and comments. It’s tougher to lead organizations where non-performers are mixed in with other staff who actually want to get the job done. I agree that some non-performers can benefit from training, mentoring, motivational techniques and/or increased oversight. Some, however, cannot or will not – thank goodness that those folks appear to be relatively few. Hopefully, successful leaders will be able to quickly identify those who cannot or do not wish to be motivated to success and take the appropriate action. If they don’t, the non-performer’s peers will many times take care of the problem their own way and force the manager to take action.

William H. (Hank) Batty

An excellent posting and a good reminder for us public sector HR folks with the following caveat: Do NOT take these lessons as an excuse to neglect the training and evaluation of an underperformer. Remember that, in most cases, you or someone in your organization hired this person (I hope) because they recognized his or her ability and/or potential during the selection process. If this hire proves to be a mistake, you definitely want to terminate the employee rather than tolerate poor performance for years. Just don’t hand the terminated employee’s attorney a compelling case for reinstatement and/or damages by by failing to provide appropriate training and coaching during their employment.

Christopher Parente

Good post. I agree with you that when mediocre performance is tolerated, it becomes acceptable.

Only caveat I’d add is the one already given, you do need to be very clear with expectations and performance evaluations. This isn’t easy, and many managers take the easy way out and avoid tough conversations about the need to improve.

Karen Simpson

Great posting! I would like to see all managers at least try to work with their employees to create successful teams. However, I have seen too many managers allow and sometimes rewards inappropriate behavior and mediocre to poor performance. They would not even take the time to try to build up these employees.

I was at an agency where employees who were considered “great performers” were rewarded and guilted with more work. Work was taken from the “mediocre to poor” performers and given to the “great” performers. Is that an incentive to become a great performer? Only if you love your job and/or like working 60+ hours a week!! I want to believe that every employee can be a great employee, but sometimes the work environment is a disincentive to become a great employee.

Christina Evans

Good post and some great points to remember. However, if your person who stinks is having a negative impact on the rest of the team, and if you’re in an environment where it’s not easy to get rid of them (I don’t know about the US public service, but in Canada it’s almost impossible to get someone fired short of outright illegal behaviour), then it IS worth investing some time to bring that person up to the point where they don’t stink any more, for the sake of the whole team. I guess the take-away is to not ignore the good performers while you’re doing that.

Andrew Larrimore

Not sure I totally agree with all of these but there are many good points. I do feel that some times a “bad employee” is actually a “good employee” in the wrong job. In my past life in the private sector I had several “bad” ones transferred into my department and found they had been placed in jobs where their skills weren’t matched with the job. Once I was able to get them into a position that matched their skills they became very productive and it wasn’t a lot of work on my part. That’s not a turned around employee but instead a matter of proper and wise management of resources which is what my job was supposed to be.

Gary Hayslip, CISSP, CISA, PMP

WOW, in the last three years working for the government I have tried to figure out why akk the “Hate and Discontent” in some of the offices out there and this blog about summed it up, thanks for putting it out there.

Jana Opperman

I used to be a teacher (High School Science). After 8 years working in one school I quit to be a stay-at-home-mom when my supervisor gave me my recommendation letter for when I was prepared to go back to teaching. I read the letter which was full of fantastic statements about my work at the high school. I said that was so nice to say all that, his reply was it was all true. I retorted “nah, you are just trying to be helpful”, and he empasized that it really was true, I was a consummate teacher! I had absolutely no idea I was considered that good. I had been given unfair assignments, asked to do jobs other teachers didn’t want therefore I actually thought I was the crappy teacher, the one they tried to get rid of. Instead it was because I always accomplished whatever they asked me to work on. I was never “thanked”, I was always “passed” on my evaluations, they could only rate a teachers observation as pass/fail. The lesson learned- please say thank you to the good workers fairly often.

Jeffrey Levy

I’m actually reading a book by Marcus Buckingham called First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, so I found your post interesting.

I think your thoughts and his make a lot of sense, but the trick is distinguishing between people who really don’t care and won’t ever perform and those who do care and want to do a good job, but lack the skills or experience.

I’m betting the latter group will reward an investment of time and training many times over.

I also agree with what others have said: clear expectations, with ramifications for both success and failure, benefit everyone.