Most leaders eventually have a chronically low or marginal contributor among their team. While avoidance and rationalization in such situations are quite common, they simply amplify the problem.
In my experience as a leader and executive coach, clarity, compassion, and consequences are the keys to skillful handling of persistently problematic performance:
CLARITY that you expect their best on an ongoing basis, and the potential positive and negative consequences based on their work. I advocate setting an explicit, high bar for your team members, and for those prone to performance issues, greater up front candor about what could happen for better and worse.
COMPASSION, coaching, feedback, and support for a reasonable period of time, when people are working on it. Also recognition when they are swamped, stumped, or dealing with a life situation. You don’t need to go around threatening to replace someone when they haven’t had enough of a chance to succeed, or there’s some clear barrier in the way.
CONSEQUENCES in a timely way when, despite clarity and compassion, the work remains average or below average. Failure to do so is essentially your permission for them to continue doing a marginal job, and inviting others to do the same. Not the leadership message you want to send. Even worse, it poisons the well, de-motivating your best people, who will eventually tire of pulling the weight for others.
In short, the best leaders love their people, but are prepared to part with them, and are not shy about following through on that.
This is harder when your marginal contributor is likable, or deeply rooted in the group. That said, caring about someone does not mean unburdening them from the consequences of their actions—in fact, as a leader, you are responsible for holding them to it for the greater good. Making good on consequences is healthy for all, including the recipient.
If you have some fear or find yourself rationalizing, join the club of being human. I didn’t say it’s easy. In fact, if you shuffle people in and out like furniture, I’m more worried about you than them—you need to take a look at your own level of compassion.
The best leaders I’ve ever known have a range between being liked by their people, and having no ambiguity among their team that there are clear and fair consequences awaiting those who don’t deliver consistently at their best.