Q: One of my direct reports is just okay: not bad enough at her job to performance-manage out, but not really contributing the way I’d like her to either. Do I just put up with her?
A: Putting up with profound mediocrity is definitely an option. Many of us have bought into the idea that all our team members should be A-level players, ideally A+. But A-level players can be high-maintenance: they are always angling for a promotion, leaving for a better job elsewhere, or exhausting others with their pace and creativity.
There’s something to be said for B-level staff. These are the folks that stick around, who make sure everything — even the boring stuff — gets done. Sure, they may not shine like a Katy Perry Firework, but they are solid, dependable, and unlikely to explode in flames. So first ask yourself whether your team member’s mediocrity is acceptable, given her role and your needs.
If you decide you want more, try focusing on engagement instead of performance. This means taking off your manager hat (focused on performance) and approaching her as a coach (focused on engagement). There are two engagement-enhancing strategies to explore: meaning and strengths.
MEANING: Just as you find her performance mediocre, she may find this job mediocre. It’s difficult to perform well when you’re not convinced extra energy or effort matters to anyone. Help her see the meaning behind her work: if she rocked at her job, who would benefit? How would the world be a (even slightly) better place for your clients or for her co-workers? Even the most “it’s just a job” roles can be sources of meaning with the right frame. For example, processing payroll correctly reduces the stress of co-workers. A beautifully made bed could make someone’s first vacation in years more special.
STRENGTHS: It’s also possible that this direct report has superpowers, but her role isn’t using them. When working toward engagement, remember strengths aren’t just what you’re good at but also what energizes you. They aren’t always the same thing. When have you seen her light up or perform strongly? Ask her what parts of her job she enjoys most. How can she do more of that work, either through discretionary assignments or through task-shifting with colleagues? Often, spending more time doing what we enjoy makes it easier to soldier through the less fun parts of our job. As her manager, you can think creatively about how to get her more opportunities to use her strengths. (Be aware, though, that some of your A players may get pissy if you do this for her, and not for them. So consider having similar conversations with everyone on your team — it might uncover interesting opportunities to redistribute work within your team.)
You may find through these conversations that the issue isn’t engagement — she really is just a deeply okay performer. That happens sometimes, and it means you’re back at your original question: do you just put up with her? But at least you’ll know you tried to improve the situation first.