Building high performing teams by telling your employees they suck

.. well maybe not as bluntly as that…

*this post has a follow on post Continue and read building high performing teams by showing your employees why they suck*

Every now and then, managers get together and play this wonderful game where they take all their employees and put them on a “9 box”; if you ask me., its more like snakes-and-ladders (aka chutes and ladders).. but the end goal is the same., identify where each employee is and figure out how to move they into the top-right corner (and promote), or move them into the bottom-left corner (and out).

Many of us have played this game many time….  In my opinion the problem with this game, and the way that many choose to act upon it is that its just too politically correct. For the individuals who fall in the bottom left corner we have decided that they suck but wont tell them that to their face, the ones who are in the top right are the super stars and we don’t want to make it too obvious to others…. so rather than say it how it is, we waste endless hours trying  to figure out how to get the message across and build a better performing team all by ourselves….

Where is the fearless leader? where is the animal instinct and the competitiveness? Forget the politically appropriate messaging., I say call it all out: Hold a team meeting, tell people where you think they land and get it over with. Yes, either your team will think you are an ass for doing it., or they will respect you for being open and straight forward with them. Use your team to help pull the ones in the lower left corner and let the team know who the obvious role models are; Why do all the work your self? trying to be careful not to hurt someones ego? we are all here to work, get the job done and perform. Does your team really want dead weight slowing them down? holding them back? You are accountable when someone else has to work over time because someone in their team didn’t get their work done. Its you who they curse when they are putting in 60 hours because you didn’t have the guts to fire the bad apple and get a new one. yes, its always your fault.

So why the emphasis on being open? why the public humiliation or the public praise?

Not too long ago, an employee asked me “Why don’t you tell your people that they did a great job? Did you know he had to work through the weekend to get it done?”; My answer was “They day any of you guys, works more than I do, I will personally congratulate you and send you a box of chocolates”…… It was in humor that I made the comment, and followed up with a “the reason why he had to work the weekend was because he was not at his desk most of the week, coming in late, leaving early… he was off doing personal things”…   What I am outlining here is the perception that someone else in the team had of me not being appreciative and recognizing someones hard work vs the fact that the person was simply making up time lost during the week – The thing about incorrect perception is that its never “just one person”… it could be your entire team!… Using a team meeting to dish out things like this helps reset perceptions and gives everyone a clear picture of what you see; essentially such a group setting promotes conversation that goes both ways… don’t be surprised if your team starts telling you what you are not doing and what you need to improve on. A team that gives you honest and open feedback about yourself as their manager not only tells you that they trust you, but it also allows you to use that information and grow yourself.

So do the 9-box and get a team meeting together: tell the ones who suck that they suck and that you and their team mates are here to help them improve and talk through issues – tell the high performers that they are high performers and that you and your team will be demanding more from them to help them grow to the next level in their career. Do this and you will build high performing teams that follow and believe in your fearless leadership.


Continue and read building high performing teams by showing your employees why they suck



  1. SS

    Tricky to tell an employee he/she sucks in front of colleagues. Better off doing it in private I think. Public criticism can be taken negatively n may backfire by lowering self esteem. Of course sometimes the proverbial tight slap is what is required to get even the very best of us back on track. Very rarely do managers like to give bad feedback or tell you about your weaknesses because they don’t want to get into the mess of helping you.

    • Author

      “Very rarely do managers like to give bad feedback or tell you about your weaknesses because they don’t want to get into the mess of helping you.” – Then fire the manager.

      • Travis

        I can’t get behind that. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received during my years as an Army officer was “Praise publicly, criticize privately.” You do owe your people consistent, frequent and fair feedback, but routinely pointing out individual failures in a team meeting has got to be some of the worst leadership advice I have ever heard. That’s coming from the military, where we worry way less about someone’s feelings than the private sector does.

      • zxed

        Pride. “I failed”, “I am failing”, “I need help” – It’s ego and pride that comes in the way of getting help. Its also pride that you are aiming to protect and project in your comment “Praise publicly, criticize privately.” – but read on.

        For starters, the topic is corporate performance reviews, where you 9-box employees, its a silly tool, that to me is like snakes/chutes and ladders; its done ONCE a year. Context is important – so with that your opinion is out of context and I’ll elaborate. While a lot of great leadership lessons come straight from the army/military – not every leadership lesson is applicable to corporate leadership; and there is a major difference in the few instances where private criticism works (and should be private) to help realign vs months/years of letting things slide. It’s important to note that we are not talking about something that has become an issue out of the blue, but rather something that is repetitive, and in the past, leaders/managers/yourself have ended up with the stance of “leave him/her, that’s just show they are”. One thing does translate well though (depending on the type/branch of military) is the notion of the team and how a leader positions themselves as part of the team – one of them – we are one, all on the same team. So what happens when the same person, repeatedly doesn’t show up at 4AM when everyone else shows up because “they didn’t fell like it”? How many excuses do you make for this person? What do you tell your team, who trusts you as their leader and one of them when they all know that this person is not giving their 100%? And this happens over and over again.

        There is a place for private criticism and there is a place for public criticism; but there should be no such thing as “Criticism should be private ONLY” and that’s what this article is about. Introducing the correct type of public criticism makes a team more transparent, it enables people, and yourself to admit fault publicly and be critical of yourself – and then getting over that with the help of your team.

        Again – 9-Box happens once (or twice if you are lucky) a year – the part I have an issue with and what this post focuses on, is “For the individuals who fall in the bottom left corner we have decided that they suck but wont tell them that to their face” – Waiting a whole year, to figure out that someone is in the bottom left is already too late as the bias is to fire this person; writing it up in the performance review, and throwing it in their lap at the performance review in writing is a disservice.

        If you happen to run into other posts, you will see that I strongly believe in weekly 1-1’s and weekly team meetings. 1-1 is great to address personal/private issues/feedback, team meetings are for public issues/feedback and I find nothing wrong in publicly discussing how “John Do” needs the team’s help to improve X (after I’ve repeatedly tried to help in in 1-1’s, maybe even told him I’ll ask the team to help) – as a team, we will help and break any barriers in one saying “I need help”.

  2. SS

    You can’t fire your manager. Don’t forget that personal interests and attachments play a big role because you are at the end of the day working with humans and not robots. Your one over One manager maybe looking to move on and wouldn’t want to invest in hiring someone else to replace your manager and train him. He’d rather conveniently move on and promote your manager to his/her role. It’s all situational.

    • Author

      There are bad managers and then there are great managers. Great managers are leaders and leaders build great teams; they invest their time ad effort in making sure their employees are performing, challenged, engaged and growing. Great managers are leaders who have followers and they themselves are great followers; Great leaders are great followers. An organization that does not denote and remove the bad managers who are cancerous to employee motivation and growth does not value leadership nor invests in it; such an organization has a high turnover in employees and/or management who rotate in and out every 2 years or so. So while you cannot fire the manger who won’t invest in the betterment of his employees and teams; the organization should; if it values what I outlined.

      Leaders are fearless; they will take an issue for what it is head on and tackle it. That is what the talking points for this blog post are based on….

  3. SS

    No organization can have every single employee as a leader. I work for a world renowned mnc… One of the largest in the world that is considered a leader in building leaders yet most employees are mediocre or plain bad. The true leaders are far and few and of course stand out but may not necessarily be the apple of everyone else’s eye. Mediocre people prefer to have others of the same kind around them. Oh and these great leaders do actually tell people on their faces that they are doing a crap job. But not everyone who tells u that u r doing a crap job is a leader. Some leaders may do it in a more subtle and humble manner that doesn’t make u feel humiliated.

    • Author

      I don’t doubt that you employer is world renowned. But the problem that your org has is this: “Very rarely do managers like to give bad feedback or tell you about your weaknesses because they don’t want to get into the mess of helping you.” So unless your org, fires these managers and builds or hires great managers, there wont be a solution to: “yet most employees are mediocre or plain bad.”

      If its not in the culture, its not going to happen; so while your org may be known for what it builds, its culture, and its people, see a different side.

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