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Addition by Subtraction

I am sure most of you have heard of this expression before. It essentially refers to increasing the strength/efficiency/effectiveness of something by removing (subtracting) a part or piece that is causing sub-optimal performance or ineffectiveness.   As an HR Professional, I am rather fond of the expression, its intent and especially its applicability in my world.

Addition SubtractionTypically when I see this come in to play is in dealing with workplace teams. Not that long ago, we had to deal with a situation where addition by subtraction came in to play. There was a work group of highly skilled individuals who just weren’t able to regularly deliver as a team. After much discussion with their manager and the team members, it started to become apparent that there was team dis-functionality being caused by one particular team member. This person’s overall work ethic (or lack thereof), lack of dependability and lack of desire to be a part of the team were causing the entire team to not be effective and to perform to the best of their combined abilities.

It had become apparent that this pattern of behaviour and poor performance had been going on for some time and wasn’t being managed effectively. Long story short, through a combination of a new manager taking over the group and a renewed focus on performance metrics and behaviours, we ended up “removing” this particular employee from this group. What we didn’t do though was replace the headcount, so in effect; the team was down a person.

Here’s the thing, there were no grumblings about the workload or the fact that everyone had to do a bit more. In fact, the team finally started to come together and gel. They all pitched in, focused on the required goals and objectives and started supporting the team concept in the achievement of these goals. This improved level of performance has now been sustained for over 7 months so it is safe to say that the behavioural change has stuck!

There are several HR lessons learned here. The first is that addition by subtraction works. You remove one problem or underperforming employee (subtraction) and the result is a more cohesive and higher performing team (addition). In effect, we removed an underperforming part (subtracted) that was impacting the team, and did not replace that part, with the end result being a higher performing unit (addition).

I find as HR Pros, managers and leaders, we tend to rationalize or even postpone these types of decisions by telling ourselves, “well we can’t remove Sally from the team because then they will all complain about the additional work they have to do.” My experience in these situations is that that is never the case. More often than not, the team will appreciate the problem (employee) being removed and will step up – it can be that simple.

The other lesson learned is that as managers and leaders we always have to be performance managing. If we are setting objectives, measuring our people on the “what” and “how” of their performance AND talking to our people regularly, we will be in a better position to take action when poor performance impacts the team.

Finally, the other lesson(s) learned is to not wait too long to make a move (subtraction) like this to help improve a team and similarly, it is never too late to make a move like to help improve the team. As a leader, by showing that you are listening and taking action against team problems and removing obstacles to team success, you will gain your staff’s trust and confidence.

What about you? Do you feel that addition by subtraction works? Have you had a similar success story or perhaps a time when this approach didn’t work? As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of Boians Cho Joo Young/FreeDigitalPhotos.net


6 Responses

  1. I often talk about upgrading teams, and the huge benefit of replacing a C player with an A or even B player. Not exactly the sa,e idea, but similar. Poor performers suck huge amounts of energy from teams and their managers … If you can add through subtraction go for it! Worst case go for an upgrade, everyone knows who the problem is and not acting on the situation hurts everyone.
    As always, good advice from Scott!

    • Kevin – couldn’t agree more..great points. Like you, I have found that having those negative/draining team members just kills team momentum. You aren’t doing anyone any favours by keeping them around! Thanks for commenting!

  2. Good read Scott, thank you for sharing it. I’m all for pruning the vine when necessary. I always have a plan to replace but don’t mind seeing how the waters flow first. My only concern is when Addition by Subtraction is misused as a cover for not replacing attritted headcounts in a rough economy.

  3. It makes perfect sense. No point in poisoning teams. Want to move forward or backward? The choice is simple and clear.

    I observed such a problem in the public sector and somehow managers seem to have a hard time dealing with “poor” team members. Not doing themselves a favor, that’s for sure!

    • Thanks for your feedback Khadidja. It does seem more problematic in the public sector for sure when seniority comes into play more. It all comes back to the kind of workplace culture that you have.

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