Let's kickoff the new year by celebrating with balloons, a party hat, and Peter the Performer who is here to make bold claims about what they can and will do (yet we know will never actually happen).
Whether it is founded in bravado or boundless optimism, they have a knack for over promising and under delivering.
On the low side of the spectrum they simply have extreme confidence in their abilities and on the other side of the spectrum they truly believe that they are the corporate savior … and as long as this behavior isn't performed to the detriment of others, nor the team dynamic, you would be okay with it – to a certain point.
Unfortunately, the truth is, they never follow through.
Sure, they put on a great show and they fool people for a little while, but those that are close to this performer on a daily basis are quick to recognize that the character is not dependable.
However, their performance has a way of wowing those who are not close to the action. Their positive, optimistic approach creates a longer leash than most are given. Even when the awareness of their inability to deliver becomes widespread, they somehow seem to remain a permanent fixture on the team.
In fact, no matter how many people share their examples of instances when this person failed to deliver upon their promises, they somehow continue to be protected by upper leadership.
This invariably leads to a growing body of extremely frustrated coworkers left in their wake. Or worse – this bad apple has soured the work climate and top employees are starting to leave. The defectors are simply fed up with the imbalance of how the fake performers are still getting preferential treatment while the true high performers work extra hard to pick up the slack. These top employees have lost faith in the leadership team because they seem clueless of how work is actually getting done.
This is a villain that shares many commonalities with many other characters who appear to be playing "office politics". Yet, you always want to approach these situations assuming positive intent. People who are highly expressive and positive do not necessarily lead to villainous behaviors. The difference here is recognizing a pattern of over promising and under delivering.
When it happens infrequently it is a perfect opportunity for mentorship or more frequent check-ins. If it continues to happen and it is does not openly appear to be addressed then it begins to fester. This is especially important for this villain because symptoms tend to hide for a period of time.
There are some that see through the act early on and watch closely with a healthy skepticism. Others however, are blinded by optimism. They buy into the character, trumpeting them as a savior and bestowing more and more faith in them.
When this villain is an issue in a culture, it is because the leaders who can take action fall into a category of absentee leadership, not the the category of healthy skeptic or trust but verify.
I refer to this behavior as the ‘hero syndrome’. This is where people, often hiring managers, are so blinded by optimism about the impact of new employees in the business that they downplay any of the faults of the hero and/or overinflated the potential impact of the hero.
To be clear, this is not a bad thing by itself. In fact, it has been proven that those who are given higher expectations routinely outperform those who have been wrapped with lower expectations – a form of self-fulfilling prophecies.
So, while it is great to set your expectations high and maintain a positive outlook for these characters, you must be ensure that the situation is monitored. Often those who present themselves as having boundless potential, in a “trust me, I am the expert” type of attitude, tend to clench onto external excuses when they fail to perform at the level they projected.
This is when the tide begins to turn. They may explain that they are unable to be effective because they lack control of the right resources or otherwise need greater power to be successful. Pragmatic leaders will recognize the situation and limit providing additional responsibilities until performance warrants greater responsibility. Yet in many other cases the villain will be granted additional power. This often leads to the phenomenon aptly named the Peter Principle where the villain has been promoted to a position where they are incompetent, unable to perform their tasks.
When this happens it creates an invisible riff in the culture that may not fully manifest for months, yet anyone paying close attention will start to see that those closest to the villain begin to exhibit defensive tactics.
Unsure if you have a Peter the Performer on your team based on their actions alone? Then watch the actions of those around them. See if new levels of defensiveness begin to emerge. If you are still unsure, ask for open ended 360 feedback from their peers.
What are they bracing for exactly?
Succinctly, the villain's next move which will invariably be more power play tactics such as political land grabs, gatekeeping, overstepping boundaries with other teams or team members, etc. These tactics often present very subtly and are missed or ignored by management, but quickly the chasm between this villain and co-workers will continue to widen.
On the other hand, some of the behaviors will not be subtle.
One that happens often is conflicting promises. Often eager to shape the narrative around their performance, these villains begin to make un-keep-able promises where they promise one thing to one person and make a near inverse promise to another. Early instances of this are explained away as misunderstandings, but as the number of instances of this behavior continue to stack up, it becomes undeniable.
Other cases are even more blatant and grow from subtle interference to active sabotage as the villain continues to exhibit damage control behaviors and other political spin tactics. This generally marks the beginning of the end, yet unfortunately, the rip cord is never pulled as quickly as it should be.
In fact, in the worse cases, these fake performers will start to create friction with the true performers who are in a place to question the dependability of the villain. This creates a not so subtle "me or them" environment that forces the leadership team into playing referee, or deciding which employee to let go to eliminate the friction.
In this case, if leadership has high EQ and recognizes who is playing office politics then they will start to address this villain. If they have low EQ – remaining under the spell of Peter the Performer – they will side with the villain … creating a wider chasm between the leadership team and the top employees.
… the list goes on and on!
However, the takeaway I want you to embrace is not about this villain, but of the obligation of leaders to actively curate the culture of product companies.
“Employees don’t leave bad companies, they leave bad managers”
This is true and in 10% of these cases there was a Peter the Performer that a leader failed to address adequately, leading to the departure.
Think of your culture as a garden. Your garden is full of strong performers who are strongly driven for success.
It is your duty to create an environment that maximizes the capabilities and passions of the collective without letting anyone’s individuality outweigh the needs of the collective. This means that you must address individuals in your culture that present like an invasive weed quickly by mentoring them with nutrients and pesticides.
In ideal cases they will take to mentorship and modify their behavior.
In other cases you must remove these villains from the culture to prevent the whole garden becoming unhealthy.
I recognize that this sounds obvious. Yet the advice rarely is acted upon quickly. As discussed, this appears to be a common leadership blind spot. This is either done because the leaders style had prevented others from providing feedback about the villain (an environment with low psychological safety), leaders are not actively seeking feedback for their team members, or because the leader is avoiding making a move.
I’ve often seen this willful avoidance coming as a result of holding onto the employee to keep from leaving a resourcing gap or a misguided belief that the benefits that Peter does bring outweighs their negative impact.
This mindset should be avoided at all cost. There is no quicker way to spoil the fruits in the garden than to protect the weeds – thus rewarding the behavior of villains.
This will invariably demotivate your top performers, poisoning the soil of your culture creating a long term issue that long outlasts the tenure of this villain.
In fact, if you make the move, you will likely see your top employees rally behind your decision to defend the culture.
The Co-Worker Perspective
On the other hand, as a coworker in an environment like this, you also have options – albeit fewer due to your lack of direct power over the situation. Your best course of action is to directly speak to this character and help them recognize the impact that a lack of dependability has for them and how their lack of follow through is impacting your ability to complete your tasks. This direct approach is a required step.
A direct, candid conversation is always the best place to start.
Understanding each others perspectives can uncover cases where you may have misidentified their behavior negatively, yet their reality reveals something very different.
Other times you will find that they were simply unaware of their impact and these conversations can provide them a mirror to recognize their blind spot.
If you do not feel comfortable with one on one conversations with this person then discuss topics as part of a team discussion – all focused on accomplishing your objectives. Think sprint retro. Of course, depending on the level of psychological safety on your team, some may not feel comfortable with discussing interpersonal issues. Learning to facilitate these tough conversations is a critical skill to helping cultivate team health and performance. Fighting through the short term uncomfortableness of this storming/norming phase will be well worth the comfort of the performing phase for your team.
If neither of these issues sway them to adopt new behaviors then it is time to escalate to their manager for assistance. With your documented examples of over promising and under delivering, including how you attempted to bridge the gap by working with the individual directly, (as documented above) they will be required to lean into the situation. If you have a different direct manager then make sure that your manager is also aware of the situation and how it is impacting your performance.
You will need to give them some time to nurture your co-worker through corrective actions so try your best to be patient. Recognize that you may be looking at the situation from a different angle then they are, which may take a while for them to see things from your vantage. For example, maybe you are more relationship focused and are frustrated about the lack of unity felt on the team, but they are more task natured and since ultimately the tasks are still happening it is not as big of a priority for them. Or visa versa.
When your patience has been exhausted … well the next steps are likely to put you into a difficult position. You can escalate to their manager’s manager or seek council with HR. However, even when warranted, leaders typically have a fight response to these types of escalations. In fact, in environments where this behavior is modeled at the top (places where HR proudly states “we hire fast and fire fast”) be careful of how you approach the situation. That said, if you are in an environment like this where your sense of psychological safety gives you pause for how to proceed, then you are looking at your first signs of needing to find a new employer who better aligns with your ideals.
Corrective Advice Recap
- Direct and candid conversations are required and are most impactful when sparked with curiosity and seeking to understand.
- Prioritize the cultural development of Accountability and Dependability principles in your culture.
- Set high expectations for employees and maintain a positive outlook, but monitor actual performance.
- Eliminate political games like land grabs, gate keeping, and overstepping boundaries with other teams.
- Be on the lookout for those actively sabotaging others, creating drama where it doesn’t need to be.
- Coach employees to work their interpersonal differences out between themselves first, then facilitate as necessary.
- Leaders have an obligation to take swift action to mentor these characters – removing them if behavior corrections are not accomplished.