What substituting a human being with a cat tells us about how we need to manage them
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.
- The catalyst. This is the person who makes everyone around them better by being there. They coach, they give feedback, they help work through options quickly and without fuss. When they are replaced with a cat the output of the team falls by more than the output of the person. Not to be confused with the irreplaceable cat. This tends to be the person everyone in the team aspires to be. Find opportunities for them to mentor productive cats so they can, in turn, become catalysts. Find them someone to learn from in another part of the organisation. Make sure you’re actively looking to help them progress their career because if this cat can’t get promoted then everyone will lose faith in your promotion system. These cats respond best to a light touch of management because they will go and do the right thing without oversight.
- The ineffective cat. This person can be very busy but doesn’t contribute much. When they’re not around you don’t really notice. One of the most damning indictments of managers is to find that their presence simply doesn’t matter to the team. The good news here is that intervention may not be that urgent. However left unchecked an ineffective cat will turn into a harmful cat because people will question why someone that contributes next to nothing is tolerated and morale will suffer as a result. Be specific with this cat. Give concrete deliverables and outcomes and hold them to account for them.
- The irreplaceable cat. This person can feel like a catalyst. This is the cat that hoards knowledge or permissions. When they are not there the team struggles disproportionately. You need a plan for how they intend to make themselves less pivotal. At which point they can either be guided towards becoming a catalyst — and they will thank you for freeing up their time to do more (they may even feel trapped where they are). Or, they will dig in and make the transition into fully blown harmful cat. The urgency here is around the risk to the team of this person not being there one day because they moved job or were unexpectedly unavailable — so evaluate based on the team resilience.
- The harmful cat. Finally, the point of this article. This is the person who drags the team down. When this cat isn’t around then productivity soars. There are many reasons for this. This might be the person so dogmatic in the one true programming language or solution that they attempt to win all discussions through stamina. It might be someone openly hostile that makes other people afraid to speak up. You need to address this fast. Because this is the kind of person that people move teams to avoid.
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.
- Harmful cats can turn into star performers. Just because they are harmful now doesn’t mean they are irredeemable. Don’t give up on the person because they are hard work or you don’t see a way out. Some of the highest performing people have some sharp edges. They may know about them and not know how to get started.
- Your team will judge you on how you handle this. If you duck this then your credibility with the team will suffer. If you defer to someone else to handle it you’re not doing your job.
- The impact of a harmful cat is beyond them as an individual. This is about the needs of the many as much as managing a single person. A harmful cat means you won’t have a functioning or healthy team.
- People will thank you in the long run. The difficult conversation can feel like a combination of kicking a puppy and entering a cage fight with a bear. Putting it off doesn’t make it any less scary and people will respect you for being honest with them as long as…
- Be clear about what success looks like. Success is also not just about stopping being a jerk. It’s also about how they can grow and progress in their career. If you back someone into a corner they won’t have much incentive other than to make the hard conversation stop. People respond better to hard feedback when paired with opportunity.
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.