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On his reality show, The Apprentice, Donald Trump came across as a tough leader. He would look people in the eye and declare, with a finger for emphasis, “You’re fired.”

But in real life, that doesn’t seem to be his style. Instead, people who have irritated him or been deemed not up to snuff are isolated and will hear from others, including the news media, that they are on the way out. The exact moment of leave-taking may or may not include him uttering those famous words – “you’re fired.” Often, he seems to avoid it through his grumble leadership.

But this is not about Donald Trump. It’s about you.

Perhaps you also succumb to grumble leadership. You hire somebody with great expectations – perhaps unrealistic ones – and then life happens. They don’t meet those expectations. Or they simply aren’t very good. They deluded you, or you deluded yourself, or this job falls outside their current abilities. It may be a step too high or they can’t adjust to the new workplace.

So you grumble, complaining to others. And isolate them or, at least, don’t interact as frequently or with as much enthusiasm as before. You feel bad and soon they do as well. Not exactly a recipe for engagement and productivity. Your grumbling grinds everyone down.

This is not really about losers you hired because they disguised their incompetence. That may happen (and when it does, don’t blame them; blame, and improve, your hiring processes, including your own weaknesses that contributed). But it’s important to realize grumbling can also arise – probably will – with stars.

In Chasing Stars, Harvard University Professor Boris Groysberg reported on his research into the hiring of top investment analysts, choosing them to study because they have portable skills and are the ultimate free agents, often hired away. He found they experienced an immediate degradation in performance at the new workplace. An analyst who, in a given year, made the Institutional Investor top rankings and didn’t move made the rankings the next year 84.9 per cent of the time. But a top-ranked analyst who moved had only a 69.4-per-cent chance of being ranked the following year. “Even after five years at a new firm, star analysts who changed employers underperformed comparable star analysts who stayed put,” he says.

The reason is that at work we have some skills that are portable, but others that are related to the workplace we are situated in. The analysts took their brains and outside contacts with them but didn’t take colleagues and workplace culture. Maybe they still shone so brightly in the new workplace it didn’t matter. But more likely, grumble, grumble, grumble as expectations clashed with reality.

If grumble leadership makes no sense – if it’s as dysfunctional as the current White House – what’s the alternative? The first step (not an easy one) is managing your emotions. If there’s a performance problem as well, deal with that. Start with some reframing, however: Consider the possibility it’s a learning problem. At this year’s World Business Forum, consultant Whitney Johnson said “every single person in your organization is on a learning curve, including you.”

She sees learning as similar to the S-curve for new firms, with a rapid build-up that starts from inexperience, moving through deeper engagement, and then levelling off with mastery – at which point you must help the employee improve again. In a blog post, trainer Dan Rockwell riffs on Ms. Johnson’s model:

  • Don’t focus exclusively on hiring people at the top of the curve, the mastery stage. Managers often complain that they can’t find any good people. If so, hire for potential.
  • Reassign anyone who has been in the bottom 15 per cent of your team – the fumbling, incompetence stage – longer than a year. “If you can’t reassign, redesign their job. If you’ve been training someone for a year with little progress, retraining in the same area won’t work,” he says.
  • Have a plan for people’s growth. This should involve six months at the low end of the learning curve; three years in the sweet spot of engagement and competency; and six months at the high end of the learning curve. Then repeat that, taking them to a new level.

That’s easy to suggest, not so easy to do. But trying beats grumbling.


  • Reward people for eliminating worthless work,  advises HR consultant Tim Sackett.
  • Digital marketing firm ePrize encourages employees to take 5 per cent of their time, or about two hours a week, to just think, consultant Michael Kerr notes. In a frenzied world, it’s worth thinking about.
  • A study of the National Basketball Association suggests that higher team performance reduces performance pressures on managers, and that players experience more favourable treatment from same-race coaches after their teams have won more games.

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