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Focusing on low-performing staff promotes success in your team

If you let an underperformer go unchallenged, you are guaranteed lower morale among your higher performers over time


First-line correctional supervisors spend more time in proximity with their teams than many other law enforcement supervisors. With long shifts and regular overtime, the shift supervisor at a corrections facility can have a significant impact on morale, retention and operational success. This article is the second in a series for Corrections1 members that outlines the tools effective supervisors need to lead their team. Read the first article here.

About a month after I was off training, one of my first sergeants sat me down in his office and said, “A team is only as good as its weakest member, know what I mean?” I stated that I understood, and he dismissed me.

I walked out and mentally scratched my head. Was Sarge indirectly telling me I was the weakest member of his team? I felt like I needed some more information to go on, but I wasn’t about to go back and ask what I needed to improve.

Obviously, my sergeant didn’t explain my shortcomings and expected me to figure it out. It was apparent that he expected more from me. I committed to paying closer attention and made sure I was in step with the higher performers in my team.

A, B and C performers

The sergeant, in my estimation, failed to address a problem he saw in me. To this day, I don’t know exactly what he thought my problem was at the time that we spoke. I was new and relatively clueless. The sergeant at least gave me a bit of a message that he expected more from me, and he did point out a consistent reality throughout corrections: Simply put, many teams have A, B and C performers.

The C students in any organization often become the topic of discussion by the A students. How many times have you commiserated with fellow teammates in the breakroom, shaking your head at the latest evidence that a C student is causing more work for the rest of the team? How many times have you actually tried to help an underperformer improve?

A team can also include members who perform at different levels in different tasks and yes, a team’s overall performance can be dragged down by its weakest members. It is up to a supervisor to allow team members the satisfaction of working within their individual strengths, while at the same time, pushing them to improve on their weaknesses.

Keep in mind that a first-line supervisor’s success depends on the overall performance of that supervisor’s team. Ultimately, a first-line supervisor must address performance issues as they come up. This is something expected by an agency’s command staff, as well as line staff.

An agent of change

Some good news for new supervisors: Just recently, you had the inside scoop on how your now-subordinates operate, what their strengths are and their shortcomings. If you are a true leader, you were already vocal with fellow teammates about how you saw them long before you promoted. Your observations, both good and bad, don’t stop when you put your stripes on, but presenting criticism constructively and in a timely, professional manner becomes more important.

As a supervisor, you don’t get to pick and choose which performance issues you want to address and which you choose to ignore. You get to triage issues and choose your battles, but if you let an underperformer go unchallenged, you are guaranteed lower morale among your higher performers over time. Some of your high performers may wonder if it’s worth putting in the extra effort while they see a team member coast by with minimal effort and earn the same wage.

As a supervisor, you don’t get to sit in the breakroom and commiserate with your buddies about the underperformer on your team and the changes you wish “they” would make. You are “they” now. You are the supervisor. You are now the agent by which change will take place and your team expects you to perform. You get to be the person who sits with the underperformer in a private setting to figure out how to get the most from them.

Set high expectations and support a path to success

The following is an example from a conversation that took place about 10 years ago. The underperformer’s team had already given up on him. Training officers failed to get any improvement from “Joe,” and he continued to frustrate his supervisors. No one up until the point when the following example starts had a direct conversation with Joe as to how close he was to being let go.

Before Joe was put on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), one sergeant sat with him in private and said, “Joe, I see you’re struggling. You know the answers to your own questions, but you won’t make your own decisions. You have performed these tasks so many times, but you still ask for advice on how to do them.” Joe looked down and shook his head. He had nothing to say. It was a difficult moment for him. He knew he was an underperformer, but up until this moment, he was coasting by without hitting any roadblocks. The sergeant continued. “You’re a good dude. I can tell you want to do the right thing. I need to know what you need from me to help you succeed. How can I help you do better?”

Up until that moment, everyone expected Joe to be a low performer. People would shrug and say, “Yeah, that’s Joe, and ‘they’ won’t do anything about him.” Joe was not put on any important projects. Joe’s work was double-checked and fixed, sometimes with his knowledge, other times behind his back. The sergeant who sat down with Joe did a few things that day. One, she put Joe on official notice that he was expected to perform better. Two, she projected to Joe that she believed in him and expected better of him. Three, she offered to help Joe but put the ball in his court. Joe was going to have to own his setbacks and specify what sort of help he needed to fix them.

Promote the existing high-performance culture

Ultimately, people will perform in the way you expect them to. Your high performers work well because you already expect it from them. If you don’t expect more from low performers and expect them to continue performing at a lower level, the low performers will perform to your expectations. What’s more, you may find some of your high performers will scale their efforts back if they don’t see a low performer being challenged.

Next time you get a chance, focus on one of your average or low performers and treat that staff member as if they are a high performer. Give your process a month to settle in because the change will be uncomfortable. You may not get golden excellence at the end of a month, but you will get improvement. What’s more, if you treat a staff member as a high performer, others on your team stand a better chance of doing the same. Ultimately, the cultural pressure to succeed will push your underperformer to try harder.

If your team lowers their overall performance level as a group, you have failed to promote a culture of success in your subordinate group. When a leader detects a low performer and expects more, that will improve the overall performance of the team. The leader is also honoring the high performers in the team and promoting the culture they have already set.

NEXT: The new sergeant’s dilemma: Navigating the transition from line staff to first-line supervision

Zohar Zaied is a background investigator assigned to the Corrections Division at the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office in Northern California. He served 16 years as a deputy and supervisor at the Mendocino County Jail, including a post in the Gangs and Classification unit and the Home Detention and Work Release programs. His book, “The Corrections Toolbox,” is now available on