There is a persona haunting the cubicles of corporate Jamaica. Mr. Crack is a presence in all except the smallest of companies, an obscure figure who quietly slips in for an indefinite stay.
He’s earned the name “Mr. Crack” because anything he’s asked to do falls smartly through the cracks, unknown to others. Only the uninitiated rely on him to get anything done. Everyone else who has been burned knows that he’s only as good as their right arm – an appendage that does what it’s told within just a few milliseconds. It has no working memory, and neither does he.
A foreign friend of mine who lives in Jamaica returned to attend a conference in the United States. Upon meeting a conference organizer she needed to work with, she unconsciously began treating him like Mr. Crack. After a few interactions, he caught on, announcing: “No need to follow-up like that, I’m a professional.”
She almost broke into tears. She realized that there was no need to keep up her habit of incessant follow-up. She could relax. Fortunately, he turned out to be reliable, never once dropped a beat during the entire event.
Here in Jamaica, we have no such luxury. Our local companies are populated with Mr. Cracks because we fear the confrontation required to intervene. Instead, like my friend, we accommodate. Afraid of being accused of being the next Bakra Massa, we drop our standards. Sometimes we avoid Mr. Crack altogether. At other times, we act as his personal external hard drive.
But these tactics don’t work. He often thrives because the best Mr. Cracks are great networkers. Like the perfect barnacle, he knows how to stick around a company for years, even decades. A nice fellow with pleasing manners, he is a good listener who knows how to make others feel good. He can share war stories of times spent with executives before they ascended the corporate ladder. These warm relations represent his job security.
However, his good social skills only make it harder to replace him. He gets nothing done, but he does it in such a pleasing way that no-one can imagine letting him go. With that obstacle in place, how then can a manager make a difference?
Tactic 1 – Direct Coaching
In prior columns, I have reiterated the need to practice tough coaching conversations. Most managers occupy one of two extremes: they either overestimate their skills or avoid developing them altogether. I recommend that a manager improves his/her skills in this area every year until retirement. It’s the only way to deal with Mr. Crack who can anticipate and avoid tough feedback conversations like a pro. He knows how to get sick or go on vacation at just the right time, escaping any unpleasantness. Overcoming Crack’s superior skills takes great capability that isn’t developed by accident.
Tactic 2 – Group Interventions
These meetings resemble those showdowns you may have seen on television when a family confronts an alcoholic. It’s a last ditch attempt to help someone whose destruction is assured. An extreme approach, it requires exquisite preparation. However, at the end of the conversation, next steps are quite clear cut and only the slipperiest of Mr. Cracks are able to get past. Such is the power of a group of close colleagues who sincerely care.
Tactic 3 – Termination
Almost every Jamaican company I have worked with has people who should have left some time ago but are not even aware that a gap exists. They labour in the dark because they have never received simple, accurate feedback. It’s no accident: many companies don’t have a robust process for addressing low performance. Managers find it easier to avoid any friction, kicking the can down the lane, hoping that someone else picks it up. The resulting lack of written records turns sub-par employees like Mr. Crack into permanent fixtures, protected by our stringent labour laws which prevent separation without just cause.
The manager’s avoidance is caused by fear and compounded by incompetence. The fact is, there are skillful, caring ways to coach, confront in groups and terminate but companies just don’t spend the time to find them.
It’s a pity. The net effect is that the high performing 20% eventually learn that mediocrity is the norm. Some leave. Most just give up, sliding into the ranks of the below-average 80%. Both outcomes should be unacceptable to leaders who need to get past their tendency to get stuck, seeing the problem as a dilemma between “being nice” or “being wicked.” This old lens, a carryover from slavery, needs to be abandoned because it stymies progress.
Instead, dealing with Mr. Crack should be seen as a matter of developing the right skills. Companies need to invest their time and effort in giving their managers what they need to address this common performance problem.
Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. To receive a free summary of links to his past articles, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org