How do great leaders treat their teams' worst performers?

I've been thinking about this question in the wake of the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who spent five years as a prisoner of the Taliban. Since his release, critics (including some soldiers from his unit) allege that he deserted. Some say he should face a court-martial, or that we we shouldn't have traded as much for him as we did.

None of us knows the full facts in this case. However, even if the worst that critics say turns out to be true, the United States was absolutely right to have worked to bring him home. Great leaders recognize that the way you deal with everyone on your team--even the least-effective performers--says more about you than it does about them. Here are seven reasons why great leaders should treat even their worst performers fairly.

1. You might be wrong.

You should treat everyone on your team well--even the people you don't think are as effective or essential--in part because you might be sizing up the situation incorrectly. For example, I'm cautious of the Bergdahl case. The reports we've heard in the media might be disturbing, but that's all they are for now--reports. Similarly, it's not always easy to see the true contributions that team members make. That doesn't mean keeping people on board forever if they aren't helping your organization achieve, but it does mean treating them fairly.

2. You inspire poor performers to perform a little bit better.

Show someone that you believe in him or her enough to offer support, and they might be moved to put in a little bit of extra effort and ultimately deliver more than they would have. In fact, one reason why we work to get all our P.O.W.'s is admittedly circular: to demonstrate that we get them back. You have to imagine it's easier to keep faith with your country when you absolutely believe you'll be coming home. The other side of this is that treating people fairly also means demonstrating that you'll hold them accountable for their actions.

3. You show their better-performing peers that you value everyone.

Treating your worst performers fairly sends a message to your better performers. It tells them that you value them not only because of what they've done for you lately, but also because of their inherent value, and for what they do for your team over time. It also offers them a bit of emotional security to know that even if their performance slips temporarily, you'll have their backs.

4. You build esprit de corps.

Is your team just a group of individuals, or do they add up to more than the sum of their parts? A great leader works sets his or her team up for success, pursues a mission that is worth their effort, and creates an environment in which simply being part of the team is something worth being proud of. One component of creating those conditions is to treat people well from the outset simply because they are on the team.

5. You show outsiders that you value everyone.

Treating your least effective performers well doesn't just send a message to your team. It also shows people on the outside that you're not just sprouting platitudes when you say you value your people. For example, it suggests to adversaries that it might be harder to divide your team and conquer, and it shows potential recruits that you're fair and even-handed.

6. You demonstrate that you handle your problems yourself.

Regular readers know that I hate bureaucratic processes, but I make an exception where it comes to enforcing our constitutional rights. Bergdahl hasn't even been charged with anything, and even if he winds up in the military justice system, he's innocent until proven guilty. Still, the point is that you want people to know that you'll face both large and small problems on your team fairly and even-handedly, without succumbing to the court of public opinion.

7. Karma.

What goes around comes around. As a business leader, today you might be deciding how to handle an employee who has consistently underperformed; tomorrow you might be explaining to investors or stakeholders why you missed a target. Treating others the way you'd want to be treated is a pretty obvious rule, but it seems that only great leaders are able to put it into practice.

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Published on: Jun 9, 2014
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