Distracting Performance Killers: Give them a “Ball of Yarn”

As in, sometimes you need to “give people a ball of yarn.”

Ever had that team member who messed stuff up, just couldn’t get it right? They can’t get stuff done on time, or it’s no good and needs major rework from other team members. These folks need to be given a ball of yarn. Like a kitty – give them a nice, enjoyable distraction that keeps them occupied. Stated differently, how do I make them virtually disappear without a big scene?

I spend the better part of my professional life trying to help people improve their skills and personal effectiveness. Having said that, some people just aren’t that strong and/or motivated in a given position. That doesn’t make them bad people, but for whatever reason, they’re a bad fit for the current role and can’t get it going.

For this post I’m assuming you’ve tried to redeem the person in question and it just hasn’t worked.

So who are we talking about?
I’ve developed a sophisticated, statistically significant, 2×2 matrix for colleagues to illustrate this point. Call it the “how good is this colleague?” matrix. You could also think of it as a quality of work life indicator. Put capability on one axis and motivation on the other and you get precisely 4 categories of colleagues. No more, no less. (As a consultant, I have to work in a 2×2 as often as possible or I lose my membership card.)

The category names are fairly self-explanatory. There’s probably more to say about this in a future post, but I wanted to lay it out as a set-up for talking about effectively occupying productivity killers.

How do I handle them?
What do you do if you’re dealing with someone in boxes 2-4? There are lots of potentially effective strategies from your toolkit to deploy. You can try to motivate, using all your leadership skills. Or you can try to be clearer about what you need. All sorts of things might work.

But when you get to the end of your rope and are in a situation where you can’t get rid of someone…give ‘em a ball of yarn. Not a literal one of course, but rather a human sized and well disguised one.

Find something that you can defend as necessary (but can’t possibly affect your real work), explain earnestly how important it is to the person in question, set them off on it and then get back to the real work.

This sounds cynical I’m sure, but one of life’s harsh realities is you won’t always be on teams of “high performers” and not everyone’s and A or even a B player. You also don’t get to pick your team or fire non-performers as often as you’d like. And unless you’re willing to have their performance drag yours down, you have to figure out how to manage them.

Slackers are relatively straightforward. They’re smart, so may even get that they’re being played a bit – but are probably OK with it. If they weren’t they’d be doing their work. Give them a nice customer delighter, like extra research or work you’d consider “above and beyond”. If they do it, you can use it and praise their efforts with the team looking great. If they don’t get it done, you’ve carved out something non-critical path that shouldn’t affect your base work and that you weren’t expected to produce. Win/win…or as our favorite TV chef (Guy Fieri) likes to say “winner, winner chicken dinner”.

Manageable non-contributors are also relatively straightforward. They won’t figure out what you’re doing, so just give them something remotely credible. They don’t care that much and their work isn’t good, so don’t worry about it more than they do.

Nightmares are another matter. A highly motivated but slightly talented individual poses train wreck potential. Think about it. The other categories are problematic, but in the end more easily managed. They aren’t getting stuff done. Once you figure that out, it’s straightforward. Just do their work.

Nightmares are far, far worse. They break things you need to fix, set straight and still do all your own work. Who knows what they’ll say to a client…god forbid they cover a meeting with the client you can’t attend…you get the idea.

Assuming you can’t make them disappear (legally and ethically), then you HAVE to manage them. If you don’t, you get what you deserve…

The ball of yarn here has to be robust. They want to contribute all they have to offer, making you cringe. Give them something apparently important that involves a lot of research, but is safely cordoned off from your main work. Then you can pull all their work into 1-2 slides and act like it’s a big deal as you place it somewhere innocuous. You’ve kept them busy and they get their moment in the sun.

I have had this arrow in my quiver for years, but hadn’t read about it or gotten any specific advice. I just fumbled my way to it. I smiled recently when I had the following exchange described to me. I’ve paraphrased.

Talented Staffer (grasshopper): “Jr Exec X is way over their head. Can’t you move them or fire them?”

Corp Sr Exec (master): “I have dozens of issues to deal with and they aren’t in the top tier. In our org, I can’t really exit them, so I’ve given them a position that has at least some prestige attached but where they can’t do much harm. You have to remember that every move you make creates repercussions. I can manage them where they are.”

See. Even senior execs give out balls of yarn. The trick is doing it well.

I sincerely want you to try and turn everyone into a contributor, but sometimes it just doesn’t work or you don’t have the time and energy. That’s the time to pull out the yarn my friends.

One thought on “Distracting Performance Killers: Give them a “Ball of Yarn”

  1. Great blog post fill! I can see where it is a sticky situation when you must work with a “nightmare” coworker.

    FYI – I think you switched Hi and Lo for motivation in your 2×2

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