Spectator Sheep – Engaging and Involving Poor Performers

I saw a post in one of my online training groups and it was talking about organizational deadwood. Granted, it is an issue in a lot of companies, but my take is to view it as an opportunity more than a problem. So, I started that conversation thusly:

First, remember that the deadwood was once a growing tree. Remind yourselves that a Sirota Survey of 2007 found that 85% of employees say their morale declines significantly after spending 6 months on the job. And that is NOT an uncommon kind of statistic according to my friends in research/surveying companies.

So, envision a wooden wagon rolling along on wooden Square Wheels® and being pulled by a guy with a rope that both isolates him from the wagon itself and also functions as a shock absorber. The wagon is thumping and bumping along, as it always has. The people at the back of the wagon are pushing, and their hands-on activities are giving them “feedback on the journey forward.” But that is it; they cannot see where they are headed. Understand that the cargo of this wagon is round rubber tires.


Thump thump, thump thump, just like always.

But paradoxically, the work team will meet their performance goals because the goals were set on this paradigm. Okay, maybe they need to improve 5% this year, but maybe that is possible. The new guys always push the hardest anyway and it does not take a whole lot of skill to perform the job.

NOW, envision on the side of the hill, the Spectator Sheep. You know who they are: they are the ones not actively involved in this effort, the ones who stand around going, “Naaaaaaaaa. Baaaaaaa.” You know they are there and that they also express their opinions fairly regularly in meetings and on the job, right?

Spectator Sheep Yellow round borders(There are multiple causal factors that we do not need
to be concerned with at this point, either.)

MY view is that these Spectator Sheep actually DO care, but they are frustrated. They see things differently from Pushers and Pullers — their arms-length perspective keeps them asking, “Why are they doing this that way?” After a while, they give up with the discourse and specific suggestions and just drift into the Naaa Baaa framework – it’s more fun that way as well as less effort for them.

(These may be those people who are not engaged but who have no intention of leaving your employment. In some companies, this represents a significant number of employees, based on surveys.)

But I also see these guys as tigers under protective sheepskin coverings. They have the motivation, they just express it differently. AND, they are headed in the opposite direction. But they have a desire to change and they see a gap between what is happening and what is possible — these gaps are motivating (look up “cognitive dissonance”).


Ah, if we could only change their direction and get them going in the same way as the wagon is rolling now. If we might only engage and involve them in the process of improving the journey. If we might only use their energy to help implement change and improvement. If we could only get these (likely) below average employees to improve their performance up to the median of the rest of the participants.


Want leverage for innovation and performance improvement? LOTS of statistics support the reality that the poor performers can contribute more, a lot more, than one can get by continually demanding improvements at the top.

What we need to do is RE-engage that deadwood, since there is still life there. Easy, no. Trust is the Residue of Promises Fulfilled and there is probably a bit of history stored up in the tree rings that needs to be addressed. But these are still valuable and skilled employees, for the most part.

But I also realize that this is not typical thinking on the part of most managers. There are rings in those trees, too.

Remember those old Saturday Night Live skits that John Belushi performed, where he would do all this insightful stuff and then end it with “Naaaaaaa” and reject the whole stream of ideas? It reminds me of what happens in so many workplace meetings…  “Naaaaaaaaaa…..”

Anyway, Spectator Sheep are real, and we can do a much better job of involving them in workplace improvement. They DO have good ideas and a different perspective on things and some simple realignment is often all that is really required. Give them a sense of ownership involvement, too,

For the FUN of It!

Dr. Scott Simmerman

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.

Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at scott@squarewheels.com

Follow Scott’s posts on Pinterest: pinterest.com/scottsimmerman/
Scott’s blog on Poems and Quips on Workplace Improvement is here.

One thought on “Spectator Sheep – Engaging and Involving Poor Performers

  1. Pingback: Can Creativity be Taught? Is that the RIGHT Question? | Performance Management Company Blog

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