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Multiplication By Subtraction: The Surprising Formula For Increasing Team Productivity


There’s an issue I’ve noticed lately with some of our most successful clients—really capable entrepreneurs—that concerns me: They keep the wrong people on their team for far too long. There’s a real cost to that, and I’ve seen it lead to some pretty big messes.

At Strategic Coach, we have a solution for this that we call multiplication by subtraction. Now, before you think I’m being too harsh, look at the interesting thing that happens when you subtract the wrong people from your team: You multiply the results.

Why? A wrong-fit person in your organization has the power to diminish, demoralize, and even destroy an otherwise highly functional team. Whether by accident or design, they’re in the wrong place, and their negative impact poisons the atmosphere for everyone around them.

The most important deciding factor? Attitude. As Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines fame says, “Hire for attitude; train for skills.” Because if a team member isn’t in line with your values, if they don’t support a positive company culture, then you’ve got a problem on your hands.

There are four different kinds of people who are simply a wrong fit for your company, who weigh down the rest of the team and hold them back:

1. The warm body who’s stopped growing

These folk tend to come on board when we’re first starting out. With limited resources and networks, we find the most capable-looking warm body and bring them on. When they stop growing and plateau but stay, it creates mediocrity. They’re committed to staying in their comfort zone, they don’t do much, and you don’t expect much—they’re just “there.” Because they’ve become “the furniture,” though, it’s very challenging to let them go. After all, we’re used to having them around. However, removing someone who’s no longer growing and not creating much or any value leaves room for others on your team to step in and create new, more efficient solutions. They’re already bypassing that person. It’s time to remove the obstacle.

2. High performers—with the wrong attitude

The second type of wrong-fit team member—often found in senior leadership positions—is the striver. You might see them as ambitious, capable high-performers because they take a lot off your plate, but they’re actually doing it because that gives them status. The problem is that they’re actually building a power base, polarizing others, and protecting their turf.

And here’s the other problem: You’re probably the last to know. Too often, it’s your team, not you, who sees the dark underbelly of the beast. The ambitious striver knows that what you want is results, and they’re good at making themselves look good—but at the expense of the other people they work with.

Look closer at how are they’re doing the job and playing the role, and you’ll discover they’re not really supporting any of the people underneath them. If your goal is to have a Unique Ability Team that works creatively and collaboratively, these people are the most toxic. They’re only interested in their own success, not the team’s.

3. “Not as advertised”

Then you have the third kind: people who look really great on paper or interview well, but when they get into the role aren’t actually as capable, trained, or intelligent as they first came across. You may wonder what happened. Where’s the person you interviewed? Instead of assuming you must have missed something, take corrective action. Be clear in your expectations, give them a time frame in which to improve, and if they don’t, say goodbye. Too often, we wait, assuming that if we give them more training or partner them up with other successful team players, they’ll be who we want them to be. They won’t.

4. Right person, wrong role

Finally, there are wonderful people whose capabilities are simply just not a right fit for their role. What we’ve done with these types of people—with a lot of success—is move them around.

This is where it helps to have assessment tools like DiSC, Kolbe, and StrengthsFinder to help you put names to people’s instincts and talents, and figure out how they can fit into another role in your company—one where they can blossom. And if they can’t, then it’s a graceful exit.

Multiplication by subtraction in action

So how does multiplication by subtraction work? Well, there’s an important third point we add to “Hire for attitude; train for skills,” and that’s fire for example.

Letting go of wrong-fit, bad-attitude people sends out a powerful, positive message to everyone else: You’re committed to having a quality team and a quality organization.

By all means, reassure the others that their heads aren’t on the chopping block. You’re not decimating the ranks. Clarify that this is a single, isolated issue and that you’re dealing with it respectfully. Let the team know that the person you’re letting go has value, just not in your organization. You may be shocked to hear, especially from your top players, “Thank goodness! I wondered why that was taking you so long.”

I’ve had several conversations recently with people who were afraid to let go of someone in a high-level position, but when they finally did, it was just a blip, no big deal—no lost clients, customers, or other team members. Everything was fine, and in fact, things improved. You just have to trust that your culture, your community, is stable enough to withstand that.

People want to work on an all-star team. If you want the best from your players, get rid of the few who pull everyone else down. At the same time, nourish the people who do represent what you’re looking for. Curate your team. Really protect that, and you’ll attract and keep great talent.

About the Author

Shannon Waller, Entrepreneurial Team Strategist, is a natural collaborator who instinctively saw that a thriving Unique Ability® Team can strengthen their entrepreneur, the business, and themselves. A win-win-win. Go, team, is Shannon’s rallying cry.

Profile Photo of Shannon Waller