Every team has overperformers and underperformers. Let your people spend long enough in either camp, and complacency is sure to set in. Factions form. Physical, emotional, and ideological divides turn from hairline fractures into insurmountable valleys. The sense of team dissolves. The oil and the water settle. And it’s precisely in these moments when you must shake things up.

In the short time I spent in the “black hole,” I took a much more empathetic and counterintuitive approach to helping this struggling restaurant turn around. In the first week, I sat back and observed. I got to know the staff. I simplified responsibilities and expectations. I empowered them and gave them greater control over their jobs. You would think that such an underachieving business would require me to “clean house,” but that’s just a wasteful, inefficient way out. I needed to get more out of what we had.

Enter the oil & water strategy.

There are generally four types of subordinates:

  • Positive-overperformers are the people who go above and beyond, are teachable, humble, and lead by example. These are your standard-bearers.  
  • Negative-underperformers are those who are not working up to your standards, are not teachable, and have a miserable attitude. There is no place for this in a healthy organization and often, you must remove them. Those who you believe you can work with belong in the next group.
  • Positive-underperformers are those who are not working up to your expectations, but are teachable and receptive to constructive criticism.
  • Negative-overperformers are those who work very well, but are not very teachable, can be arrogant, and have a miserable attitude.

(There may be some people who perform right at your expectations, but over time, you will be able to judge which side of the fence they stand on.)

These final two groups received most of my attention. I wanted to bring everyone up to the level of the positive-overperformers. And the best way to do that was to mix oil and water. Paradoxically, I began putting negative-overperformers in positions of responsibility. I knew they had what it takes. They just needed an attitude adjustment. I gave them more agency. I let them make critical decisions. By putting my trust in them, it gave them a new perspective. It allowed them to see the error in their ways. They were able to see from the other side of the glass. Gradually, their attitude improved. They began to take ownership in their work. The water was learning what it was like to be oil.

I went a little harder on the positive-underperformers. I knew they were easier to work with, but I needed to put a fire under them. I gave them more constructive criticism. I was quicker on the trigger to reprimand them. They needed a spark. They were the oil floating atop the water. But they needed to know what it felt like to be the water. And gradually, they learned to work harder, do more, and make better decisions.

My tactics were a bit confusing to the staff. Because they didn’t know where they stood or where to settle, they couldn’t possibly become complacent. Because the oil and water couldn’t separate, it couldn’t become stagnant. And the entire operation, the culture, and the energy of the restaurant improved as a result.

The oil & water strategy can only work if you’ve truly done your homework. By working to understand your people early on, you’ll get a clear understanding of who fits within each category. And by building relationships, you’ll be able to remove much of the friction that naturally occurs when this strategy is used.

If you want to get more out of your team, shake things up. Mix your oil and water.

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