Know your cats. Using the types of cat to manage humans

What substituting a human being with a cat tells us about how we need to manage them

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Photo by Jari Hytönen on Unsplash

At some point in your career as a manager you need to make a decision about whether (or how) to reward someone in your team. You will also need to make a decision about how (and when) to intervene if they are struggling or, in some cases, harmful to the team. This article can give you an idea when you need to take action and how urgent that is. It’s biased towards the case where there’s a problem because it’s easy to tell someone they’re doing great (harder to get them promoted sometimes and I’ll write about that problem elsewhere). Telling someone they are not doing great (or in the worst case — needing to walk them to the exit) is hard. It will make you doubt and hate yourself in equal measure the first time you have to do it. You’ll find reasons to put it off and end up doing more harm in the long run.

First, some history. This whole spiel came about from a conversation I had with a colleague at Google who postulated that the simplest way to know whether someone is effective is to replace them with a cat and see what the net difference is to the team. Or as my colleague put it “this person is no better than a cat”. If the delivery stayed the same then the person is ineffective. This got me thinking and I came to the conclusion that there are different kinds of cat and, that by identifying which cat you’re dealing with, you can get a sense of the urgency and intervention necessary when managing them.

  • The productive cat. This is the person that is a solid contributor within the team. When they are replaced with a cat the output of the team drops by the output of this person. They’re not ready for you to build a team or project around them yet. Find opportunities for growth and development so they can work towards being a catalyst.

When handling a harmful cat be aware of the following:

  • Seniority matters. The impact crater created by a harmful cat at very senior level can be colossal. In some cases you are talking about an extinction event for your team. Anyone in a leadership position needs urgent intervention. I include people managers and senior individual contributors in this.

If you take the red pill and become a manager it’s inevitable you’re going to need to consider both sides of performance management. One of the key inflection points in your career is the first time you tell someone they are not meeting expectations. The first time you do it feels like wretched. But, I can tell you for free, walking them to the door feels many orders of magnitude worse. And, worse still — watching a team slowly die from the inside because you didn’t act is the betrayal that lives with you the longest.

No cats were harmed in the creation of this article.

Written by

Ex-Google, ex-Netscape, ex-Skyscanner. Interested in solving complex problems without complexity and self sustaining self improving organisations.

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