That 6/10 employee is killing your culture

Right now there is a type of person that is absolutely killing the morale of your team and your culture. I call them 6/10s – because they have most of the things you really need in a good employee, but they also have several traits you have to compensate for. They’re just good enough to keep and not quite bad enough to fire. They have many names and take many forms, but I’m going to describe two prevalent types. See if they sound familiar.

First up is Cindy. This woman is talented. Super talented. In fact, she might be the most talented person on your team, and she has the most upside of anyone you manage. Cindy is one of the people you think might actually take your job one day, because as a doer of her task, she’s exceptional. The only problem with Cindy is her attitude. And it’s not overt. It’s subtle. It’s a passive-aggressive comment here. A snarky email there. An overstep of her authority occasionally. The passivity of it all makes it hard to address or call out without seeming petty and nitpicky. Because she’s been at your company a few years, Cindy is a highly-respected member of the team. That social capital, in addition to her standing among other managers, gives her the room to speak freely about what she thinks should happen at the management level of the company, insinuating incompetence but never outright saying it. Because she’s smart and trusted by the staff, Cindy is a person you have to take seriously. And when it comes time for reviews, she says all the right things. She takes constructive criticism well but firmly expresses her concerns, too. It’s part of why you like her so much. But as she re-enters the day-to-day, it’s right back to how she was. When you evaluate her in your mind, you always believe that her upside outweighs her downside. It would take something severe to ever consider firing Cindy. Deep down, you know she’s a cancer, but you don’t think you could keep the quality of work up without her.

Next up is Steve. Steve is the nicest person on the team. He couldn’t be any nicer. Not only does he know all your kids’ names, but he also is extremely thoughtful to his fellow teammates. Everyone on his team thinks the world of Steve, and he is great at encouraging younger teammates. He has a solid resumé and came highly recommended for his job. But Steve is mediocre at his job – extremely mediocre. And everyone knows it. If you polled the company, no one would want Steve to lose his job, but everyone thinks Steve is in the wrong seat on the bus. The only problem is that no other bus drivers want him on their bus, either. So you have several hard conversations with him. He knows. He’s apologizes deeply. He says he’s willing to change. He just doesn’t do anything different. And he is exceptional at giving quality reasons for his shortcomings. When it comes time to discuss compensation, you hope that by not giving Steve any additional money that he’ll get the hint. Negative. He’s just happy to keep his job, and he even tells you this. Steve is involved with the company philanthropy, he’s first at the bar when the team gets together, and he is like either a father or a little brother to several people. Everyone LOVES Steve. And you know what? You do, too. You’ve spent hours investing in Steve and helping him grow. And you’re afraid that by moving on from him, it says a lot about your leadership abilities. You can’t fire Steve. Can you? What would that do to culture? Wouldn’t the company be perceived as heartless if you fire someone like Steve?

If you’ve managed more than 10 people in your life, you’ve had a Steve or a Cindy. People like them are super challenging on different levels, but they most certainly leave you with a management dilemma for different reasons. So let’s start with Cindy. The problem with her is that we’re held hostage by the talent. All of us (but more of us who live in smaller markets) are always afraid we can’t find the talent when we need it. So when we find someone that is amazingly talented, we hold on for dear life. Even if they are really bad for your organization. But the real issue is we hold them to a different set of standards.


That’s the sad truth of it.

Just like the coach’s son who gets to play shortstop no matter what, we have a tendency to hold extremely talented people to a significantly lower standard on all other metrics. And it’s gross – because we’re actually denying them the opportunity to become great leaders or managers one day. Maybe they’ll never get there, but they most certainly will not get there unless you lead them better than enabling their bad behavior to continue. The biggest issue, though, is that you’re losing the respect of everyone on your team and giving it to Cindy. And as much as you are afraid of losing her talents, you should be much more afraid of losing the respect of your entire team. And in all reality, Cindy is miserable with your lack of leadership. She, like all human beings, craves boundaries and order. And when you fail to create order, her natural leadership abilities kick in, and she tries to create it. If you harness her leadership and have the tough conversations, Cindy could be the best thing that ever happened to your team. But you can’t try and bribe her with leadership. You have to corral her attitude first. Then work on promotion. And if it doesn’t work, you have to move on.

Then let’s talk about Steve. The reason you don’t do anything about him is that you’re afraid – afraid of what it will say about you. You’re afraid that taking Steve out back and shooting him means that everyone will think you’re heartless. How could you! Steve is such a nice guy. But as we all know, nice doesn’t win championships. Nice doesn’t make a great team. It helps, but work ethic and the ability to respond to feedback are the hallmarks of a great employee. Not niceness.

Step out of your manager seat for a moment and consider that you’re an owner of a business. Let’s say you pay Steve $50k. Would you rather have nice Steve and be out $50k; would you rather have $50k in your pocket and no Steve to do the parts of his work he does do; or would you rather pay another $10k and get Kendall from down the street who’s really good? If you de facto choose the first option, you shouldn’t be a manager. You have to break it down to what really matters to you. You can still be a kind, loving manager who gets the best out of his/her people AND be willing to fire people who don’t work out. I would actually argue that by continuing to give Steve a break, you’re NOT loving him. You’re protecting yourself and robbing him of the opportunity to learn from his mistakes.

In my career, I’ve both fired Cindy and Steve, and I’ve not fired Cindy and Steve. Every time I’ve pulled the trigger, I am glad I did. Every time I haven’t, I have a piece of me that is always fearful. And that’s no way to lead a team. My advice? Talk to them directly, confidently, and fearlessly. Remember, you have the responsibility to your other reports and to your managers to do what needs to be done, even if you don’t want to. And if you don’t? Your manager has a good chance of seeing you as a Steve.

Think about it. You wouldn’t willingly choose anything that’s just 60% of what you want if you could try just a little harder and find something that’s 80% or 100% of what you want.

Be fair.

Be understanding.

But be courageous.