Many design leaders who have inherited a team have a story of being told, by their new boss, something to the effect of, “Yeah, so, you should know, there are a couple of people on your team who are underperforming, and you’ll probably need to manage them out.”

This sets immediate alarm bells, not about the designers, but about an organization that couldn’t handle its own mess. Thing is, nearly every time I’ve been in that situation, I’ve found that the reason the designers were underperforming had little to do with the designers’ themselves, and everything to do with the context in which that designer was operating (little guidance given around the problem being addressed, unreasonable expectations for executing within a certain time frame, constraints due to technical debt, etc.). 

Oh, and, typically, the designer had never been told directly that they were seen as underperformers. Ruinous Empathy (™ Kim Scott, Radical Candor) had lead their colleagues to provide anodyne feedback, while they talked behind their back, and to their boss, about how so-and-so “just doesn’t seem to be working out.”

So when I helped that designer improve their context, their performance improved as well.

I’m thinking about this as I read Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage, which I’m finding to be an excellent read on team building and leadership. It contains ideas from his other books, notably The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and one of those Dysfunctions is not holding people accountable. I highlighted this passage:

Some [leaders] will tell me that since they aren’t afraid to fire people, they must not have an accountability problem. Of course, this is misguided. Firing someone is not necessarily a sign of accountability, but is often the last act of cowardice for a leader who doesn’t know how or isn’t willing to hold people accountable. 

Holding colleagues accountable (whether peers or people in your organization) is one of the hardest thing for leaders to do, because it requires one-on-one, typically face-to-face communication, and where you will tell someone how they are not measuring up. But, done well, it’s the best thing you can do for that colleague, as it is through constructive feedback that they grow. Not being forthright with someone about their performance, or hiding behind performance review and PIP processes, is not being kind; it’s being selfish. 

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