Not Great, Not Terrible: How to Handle Middle Performing Employees

We know what to do with our rock star employees. We show them the love. We also know what to do with our worst employees. We show them the door.

But what should we do with middle performing employees? Sometimes they have moments of brilliance that leave you thinking, “They’re okay. Let’s keep working with them.” Other times, they disappoint you, making you think, “I can’t put up with performance like this. I think that they need to go.” Weeks go by with this inconsistency in job performance, chewing up precious time. Over the course of months, and sometimes years, this results in an enormous amount of wasted energy and attention.

I learned a great discipline for handling middle performing employees from Mike Paton, the implementor who taught me the Entrepreneurial Operating System® (EOS). During our quarterly sessions, we would always review any outstanding people issues. When we discussed a middle performer, Paton would inevitably look at us and say, “You have three choices. You can fire them, you can coach them to see if the performance improves, or you can live with it. All three are valid choices.” Let’s dive a little deeper into each option.

Option 1: Fire them
This option is exactly what it sounds like, and there should be no beating around the bush with soft language like, “coach them out” or “liberate them to the next step of their career.” When this choice is made, the person’s supervisor should get the action items to figure out how and when to let the employee go, but the decision is final.

Option 2: Coach them
If you feel that the middle performing employee has the potential to become a top performer, then coaching them may be the right answer. In this situation, the supervisor will take ownership of developing and implementing the coaching plan. I strongly encourage that this coaching plan includes boundaries. For example, how long will the coaching last? What is the threshold of performance that is expected? What will the company do for the employee, and what will they be expected to do on their own?

Option 3: Live with it
This always seems like a bit of a snarky option, but it’s not. It’s a very real choice. There may be times when a leader simply does not have the time or energy to address a middle performing employee. If the position in question is not a mission-critical role, living with it may be the best choice for the time being.

It is a great relief to make a conscious decision about what to do with middle performing employees. Even if the choice is to live with the situation for 90 days, it’s a purposeful decision. You can now put it out of your mind for the next three months and concentrate elsewhere. There is no value in readdressing the issue every week. Make the decision and move on.