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Builders, Cutters and Maintainers: Don't Be Afraid to Lose the Poor Performers

March 29, 2011
Can you think of an employee that seems to mess up every task they're given?  Does this sound familiar?:

Cutters: Poor performers who do damage to your organization. One or more traits can account for why someone is a Cutter. It may be a bad attitude, abrasive interpersonal skills, poor critical thinking, laziness, poor job fit. Whatever the reason, these individuals damage morale, hurt client relationships and/or make costly mistakes.

The reason Cutters are so costly is that just one Cutter can negatively affect an entire group or department.  The boss who makes her people walk on eggshells and squelches their creativity will eliminate innovation in her group.  The employee who doesn’t accept responsibility and blames co-workers will cause infighting and eventually sink the morale of the entire team.  Cutters cut into morale, quality, output, customer relationships, innovation, profits, and eventually, the viability of your company.

It is generally not practical to believe that Cutters can be changed through heroic training and development efforts. There are just too few cases where significant, positive behavior change happens to the degree that the cost, effort and, most importantly, distraction are worth it.

The cost of Cutters is extraordinary when you consider that Cutters may stay in your company for their entire careers.  Some companies mistakenly promote Cutters to higher-level positions in an attempt to 'hide' their current, poor performance.  At the executive level, the cost of a Cutter can often rise above the one million dollar mark due to poor decision making, missed innovation, demoralized subordinates, and aggravated top talent who leaves rather than work with the Cutter.  In entry-level positions, the costs are often the highest due to the share volume of employees.

Some leaders believe that if a person has a critical skill or ability, then it is reasonable to overlook significant Cutter behaviors.  While there may be drastic examples where this is true, it is my experience that 95% of the time, it is the wrong decision to keep the Cutter, regardless of his or her ability.  Cutters simply cause too much collateral damage to justify retaining them. Even in cases where the skill is a rare programming ability or key customer relationship, organizations are almost always better off without the debilitating Cutter behaviors.  Over the past 25 years, I have observed company after company remove the person who they thought “they could not live without” only to find that productivity increased and everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief.  The old business adage that “no one is irreplaceable” really is true.

In the cases where it has made sense to keep a person with Cutter behavior, the best approach is to make sure that the debilitating tendencies are identified and neutralized.  One example that comes to mind was an organization who asked a brilliant researcher/writer to work from home on individual projects rather than come into the office and cause morale issues.  How have you solved the Cutter dilemma in your workplace?

Kevin Klinvex Kevin Klinvex was a founding partner of Select International, acquired by PSI. He is a thought leader in organization-wide hiring and retention programs. His work focused on combining powerful testing and assessment tools with the best in web-based delivery and data tracking. Kevin co-authored the best-selling book, Hiring Great People.