Which Employees Deserve Our Training Dollars?

On which demographic should we spend our Learning & Development (L&D) budget?

My interest on this topic was sparked when two conversations happened within a timespan of a few days. The first was with a customer discussing a specific employee of theirs. The client had a fairly negative perception of this particular individual and said there wasn’t anything to be done about improving their performance; no amount of training would suffice. This was a little alarming to hear. I’m not generally an overly fussy caregiver, but I’d like to explore some options to help this poor guy out.

The second discussion occurred late at night after several martinis when a director-level friend was guiltily explaining about a management meeting that took place at his company the past week. He told me that as a team, the executives decided that they were going to expend learning resources solely on their top performers. Mid- and low-level performers were not going to receive performance support and would be left to sink or swim. This, too, was concerning to me.

Where should a company spend its resources?

On one hand, it makes sense to push off those who we view as incompetent and will never “make it.” They are a drain on time, effort, and money. It makes sense to spend those resources on furthering those who will be able to provide more revenue for the company in return for their professional development. Maybe if we don’t focus resources on those high performers, the only ones who can get us to the very tip-top, we may never reach the top at all.

On the other hand, I feel that’s a pretty damn cold-hearted viewpoint, let alone not very business-savvy.

The mid-performing people, most likely 60-75% of any organization, need to have steady access to performance support and training. Not providing adequate resources to these people will result in seriously awful company morale and whatever the top performers are doing won’t matter because the mid- and low-performers will just drag the whole organization into the gutter. Plain and simple, if you’re going to spend and money at all on training, it makes the most business sense to address the middle performers. As far as the low-performers go, I’m not ready to throw that low-performing chap outside in the cold just yet; I’m more in the “catch them before they fall” camp.  The way I see it, a company chooses how to spend its money on low-performers: either L&D dollars or HR dollars.

We know that there are three reasons people do not perform at optimum and these reasons are: knowledge, motivation, and/or incompetence.

A knowledge gap can be solved with training and performance support solutions. Spend some resources on building a training program that targets the low-level and mid-level performers so that your whole company can achieve greater. Call an instructional design consultant. Create a mentorship or an onboarding program. A cheap and engaging solution is to create an “everyone’s an expert” program. One of the best things to do is to make sure the standards of performance are clear and easily located by every employee. It’s not fair to expect your employees to be mind readers to understand the expected quality or to read between the lines to understand what their daily duties are.

Motivation problems can be solved with addressing leadership styles. Managers need to be able to show their employees why their work is important and that it is truly valued. Showing people how their work serves a bigger purpose connects them to a larger organization and makes them feel like they’re needed. Managers need to allow employees to work with their own style. A leader’s trust creates ownership and promotes dutiful execution. The last key to motivation is showing employees that their hard work is recognized. People need to be appreciated in different forms, so it’s on the supervisors to do something to show their employees that their hard work is being noticed. Recognition is absolutely vital to developing a healthy organization and a productive employee.  

The final issue, which is highly possible since we’re talking about low-performance, is incompetence. These are the people who I really don’t want to give up on because I feel a pang of guilt that they were even hired for the position in the first place. Training is most likely not going to help them. However a good leader can help them find their fit elsewhere in the organization or outside of it. Every person on this planet has value and can do something of value. Devoting a few minutes to knowing your employees and seeing what their natural gifts and talents are can help guide the low performer into a vocation for which they truly excel. It takes a confident and talented leader to objectively and explicitly state the performance problem to the employee and gently redirect said person to a place where they would better fit.


Other resources:

We Can’t Ignore Poor Performers! David Brock. August 28th, 2013 http://partnersinexcellenceblog.com/we-cant-ignore-poor-performers/

Motivating Your Middle 60%. By Strategic Incentives. http://www.strategicincentives.com/rc_motivating_your_middle_60

Don’t Target Top or Bottom Performers: Move the Middle. Gal Rimon. July 18, 2015 http://www.gameffective.com/move-the-middle/

Focus on Your Average and Bottom Performers to Improve Sales Performance. Mike Kunkle. August 26th, 2013