When being good at your job isn't good enough

August 15, 2011: 12:40 PM ET

Almost every office has someone who's perfectly capable, but isn't helping to lift performance. What do you do with this person?

By Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback, contributors

The Beatles, circa 1961. Left to right: Paul McCartney, Pete Best, George Harrison, and John Lennon.

The Beatles, circa 1961. Left to right: Paul McCartney, Pete Best, George Harrison, and John Lennon.

FORTUNE -- Remember Pete Best? Best was the Beatles drummer before Ringo Starr took the job and the group went on to become the Fab Four.

Best was invited by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison -- the original Beatles -- to join them in 1960 just as they went to Hamburg in northern Germany to play a series of club dates. According to Beatles lore, it was inHamburg, playing night after night in front of a live audience, that the group developed the seasoning and skills that would make them world-famous only a few years later.

Why didn't Best go on to fame and fortune with the others? He was considered good, but not good enough, and so he was dismissed after spending two years with the group.

In early 1962, the Beatles (with Best) auditioned for a recording contract with Decca Records and they were turned down. Months later, they auditioned for Parlophone. The producer there agreed to sign them but insisted on using an experienced session drummer instead of Best for the recordings (apparently, this was common practice at the time).

When Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison heard what the producer wanted, they decided to let Best go entirely and find someone else. They chose Ringo Starr and the rest is history. Apparently, they felt if Best wasn't good enough for the recording sessions, he wasn't good enough for what they aspired to become.

The music world may seem like a universe away from the daily concerns of most bosses, but almost every manager we've encountered has had a "Pete Best" problem -- someone on staff who was good, but not good enough.

How can someone be "good but not good enough"? It happens when you want your group to become better or somehow different. And when you and the group aspire to change and improve, you need to ask everyone involved (including yourself, by the way) if they are capable of helping the group attain and sustain that higher level of performance.

Unfortunately, the answer isn't always "yes." There's often someone who's perfectly capable in the current scenario -- like Pete Best as a club band drummer -- but isn't capable of doing his part to lift performance. What do you do with this person?

There's no formula for how to proceed, but we can offer some guidelines.

Start by being as clear as possible about where you and your group want to go. Make sure everyone is part of that decision and is committed to it. Otherwise, any actions you eventually take will appear arbitrary and even unfair.

Given the goals you've set, work with your team to identify their roles in making the change. Discuss with the group about how you may need to change as well. Make sure you're not the one who's good but not good enough.

Give everyone the opportunity to rise to the challenge. Give them the training, coaching, time, attention, and, most of all, the feedback they need to improve.

If and when you begin to sense that someone may not make it, keep working with that person, but it's also a good idea to start to talk to your company's HR department about the issue. There are policies and practices that you will likely need to follow.

Make sure the person in question knows where she stands by giving them regular feedback. She deserves to know not only where she stands but also what's at stake.

Once you decide someone won't make it, try to find another position that will work for that person, either in your group or elsewhere in the organization. Consider re-assigning roles and responsibilities to recognize her strengths, weaknesses, and potential. But don't compromise on what you need.

Above all: throughout this difficult process, it only pays to treat people with dignity and respect. It doesn't help matters if you try to make yourself feel better by demonizing someone -- that is, by finding fault with everything that person does to justify what you must do.

Be aware that, no matter what you do, your final decision -- to keep this person on or fire them -- will always be a judgment call to some degree. Could the Beatles have become stars with Pete Best instead of Ringo Starr? Who knows?

Many managers duck the whole difficult issue by making no decision at all or by putting it off forever. However, if you and your group aspire to be more than you currently are, it's a call you will have to make. It's one of the most difficult choices you will face, one that will keep you awake at night, but you cannot avoid it.

Linda A. Hill, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Kent Lineback, a writer with 30 years of management experience, are co-authors of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader.

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About This Author
Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback

Linda A. Hill is Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School where she chairs the HBS Leadership Initiative. Kent Lineback, now a writer, was for nearly 30 years a manager and executive in business and government. They are co-authors of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader.

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