A Measure of Your Team’s Health: How You Treat Your “Idiot”

Every team has someone who at the bottom of its bell curve: an individual who has a hard time keeping up with other team members. By my observation, how your team members treat that person is a significant indicator of your organization’s health.

I’ve been very lucky. Over the past several decades, in different industries and roles, I’ve worked on quite a few teams that seemingly had a perfect balance of skills and personalities. That’s not to say that every project was successful – outside influences sometimes made them fail – but the experience always was deeply rewarding.

The most visible attribute of the successes was that the team members respected what each brought to the table (“He’s good at this, and loves it – and boy am I glad because I hate to do it”). Everyone was conscious that we could achieve far more together than we ever could on our own; we cherished the skills of everyone else. If you’ve ever been part of such a team (or even more wonderful, you’ve managed such a bunch of folks), you know the sparkle I’m talking about.

Whether these golden teams were online communities, departments at work, or volunteer groups, they shared a unique characteristic: Every team had one person involved who could most charitably be described as a well-meaning dummy, and – this is the important part – the team always treated that person well.

In one volunteer group, our village idiot was Elliot. The most accurate description of the guy was “sweet but clueless.” Like a big puppy, he was always willing to help, but often got in the way. He was supportive and admired people who accomplished more than he did (which was everybody).

However, Elliot never seemed to do things right, even though he tried earnestly. There’s no way anyone would give him a critical thing to accomplish to get a project done. He never quite realized it when he handed in substandard work (such as newsletter articles I always had to rewrite; since the published articles said what he meant, he didn’t realize they’d been rewritten). Usually, Elliot would miss the point of what we were doing, even though he cheerfully followed orders from people who, he could tell, had a better grasp of the project goals and how to achieve them.

But everybody treated Elliot with kindness and compassion. The other people running the volunteer group managed him so that he could truly contribute, treating Elliot’s cheerfulness and willingness as his key strengths. Every community meeting requires someone to put away all the folding chairs, or to welcome people warmly at the registration desk. We gave him all those jobs.

He was an idiot, but he was our idiot. We’d complain about him amongst ourselves (including a lot of eye-rolling, sighing, and muttering, “Well, that’s Elliot…”), but if anyone from outside had ever treated him poorly, we’d have ripped their arms off. I should note here: Elliot died, a few years ago. Everyone who’d known him in that organization showed up for the funeral. Our caring wasn’t “put up with him;” he did matter to each of us.

Ever since my Elliot experience, I’ve paid attention to this phenomenon. Every team, no matter how smart or how dumb, has someone at the lowest end of its bell curve (whether you measure that by IQ, productivity, or something else). Your team’s bell curve may be skewed in one direction or another (a team of scientists versus a team of landscapers, for whom “value” and “productivity” have wholly different metrics). So the person at the bottom, the “Elliot,” might be considered accomplished in another venue, but not in yours. But someone is at the bottom of the stack.

In unhealthy teams, the “idiot” is treated as an idiot. We see bullying, disparagement, unkindness – and these generate all the negatives you’d expect. But when the team appreciates diversity, things are different.

I see this positive team attribute most visibly in teams where people choose to participate: user groups, open source projects, community organizations. In those circumstances you cannot send away a volunteer for lack of qualifications, so you’re motivated to work with the willing folks who show up. Commercial teams should pay attention too, though, because we’ve all seen semi-competent people fired rather than helped to find their comfort/contribution level.

The question is: How do you – as project manager – treat your dummy? How does the team treat her?

I’m tempted to give you a list of “how to”s… but they really don’t apply. This isn’t a things-to-do post. Rather, it’s a way to take your team’s temperature. The manner in which the team members and project leader treat its weakest member is a symptom of the team culture, and a mark of its health. If you treat people well, they respond – and that always shows in the results you produce.

I’d love to hear about your experiences – good or bad – with the way you’ve seen teams treat their Village Idiots. How has it affected the business culture, as well as the team’s efficacy?

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Esther Schindler

Esther Schindler has been writing about computers and business topics since the early 1990s. You’ve seen Esther’s byline in prominent IT publications, such as CIO.com, IT World, and IEEE Spectrum. Her name is on the cover of about a dozen books, including most recently The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Twitter Marketing. You can follow her on Twitter @estherschindler and circle her on Google+, where she will keep you up to date on software trends, her cats, and baseball shenanigans.

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  • Jason

    I would argue that keeping a person around that is not pulling their weight is counter productive. You should respect anyone that you work with. However, your management staff should recognize this problem and take care of it. Keeping them around is also hurting your team. The same applies for open source projects. You can reject a volunteer that does not have the skills you are looking for. Why would you keep someone around that requires you to redo all their work?

    [Reply]

    pbasch Reply:

    If you get rid of the person with the lowest contribution, you’ll just have another person with the lowest contribution. Your HR may have a problem, if they hire folk who don’t contribute well, or your management may have a problem, failing to recognize abilities to deploy the hires to the organization’s best advantage. Neither of those is the employee’s fault.
    I am reminded of a situation in the TV industry: it’s a cliché that when a TV show in production seems to be having problems, executives have to be seen as taking some sort of action, but can’t fire the star, can’t fire the head writer, can’t fire anyone with expensive contracts. So they fire the guest star, who is only there for the one episode. That person has the least effect on the quality of a show, but the executive will be seen as “taking action,” and has covered their ass effectively.

    [Reply]

    Esther Schindler Reply:

    >>If you get rid of the person with the lowest contribution, you’ll just have another person with the lowest contribution.

    Gerry Weinberg referred to this as “Rudy’s Rutabega Rule.” (“Once you eliminate your number one problem, number two gets a promotion.”)

    [Reply]

    Chris Dennett Reply:

    Quite often, the person with the lowest productivity is a canary for problems with organisation in the team – the person is feeling like a scapegoat and getting stressed out.

    ClintJCL Reply:

    That’s me!

    funklord Reply:

    One good developer is worth more than 10 bad ones. Really.
    I think this is quickly devolving into the biggest problem in our industry since most developers are quite bad. And it’s mostly cheaper to pay them to stay away when the company hasn’t alotted enough time for the amount of training required for them to become productive.

    [Reply]

  • GooglyEyedRock

    What If your “idiot” is a new hire that just was a bad choice? What if they lack skills, lack ability to fit into the culture, and are stubborn about what they’re missing? In my team it’s dragging down other team members who feel like they’re pouring in their soul while the “idiot” can’t contribute anything of value

    [Reply]

    Esther Schindler Reply:

    I should have been more clear about this, but there’s a big difference from “completely lacks the skills/ability to do the job he was hired for” and “find a way for a willing contributor to contribute.”

    In the latter case, it’s a management issue (including managing-by-consensus) on finding the right role that uses the person’s real skills.

    In the former case, though, _yes_ you are totally right to feel that way: The team member drags down everybody else. In addition to wasting everybody else’s time (since they have to do his work, or clean up after him), that sweet-but-not-quite-competent person’s hanging-around suggests to the rest of the team that _they_ are not valued, since shoddy work is somehow okay.

    They’re different issues, though. Hard to tell apart at first, however, which sucks.

    [Reply]

  • quadeddie

    We have a guy on our team who is Down Syndrome. He’s very nice and sweet, but can’t really understand the programming projects we’re on. He’s kind of a drag on meetings because we have to repeat things multiple times and explain them on a 5 year old level.

    Still, we like it when he brings his puppy into work in his backback. One time the puppy got into the printer toner and that was a super sad day. But he got another puppy the next week.

    We don’t abuse this guy. He has a computer but only plays solitaire on it. We’ve given him all of the development tools and training all of the other developers have, but his productivity is not great.

    Still, he’s great and I can’t imagine working there without him.

    [Reply]

    Lanthanide Reply:

    Sounds like a monumental drain on productivity. There’s a difference between someone who is capable but slow, and someone who is incapable, which sounds like the guy you are describing.

    [Reply]

    pat Reply:

    This is the problem with society. Scum like you.

    [Reply]

    Esther Schindler Reply:

    I can understand rejecting that opinion… but perhaps this is an opportunity to practice that “kindness and compassion” we were talking about?

    Because you don’t change someone’s mind by telling him he’s wrong.

    Garrett Alain Colas Reply:

    Not really, society needs to have programs in place to help people who can’t quite make it on their own.

    I don’t see how shifting that responsibility from government to businesses would make our society better. (although lobbyists might have you think that.)

    gyrfalcon Reply:

    Go easy with the sarcasm, you might fool some idiots.

    [Reply]

    RedFalcon Reply:

    Bazinga!

    [Reply]

  • Brian

    What happens if you have a person you can’t manage? Is the person actually an incompetent and foul-mouthed bully, and you can’t get rid of the person? That person will destroy everything, and be happy to do it. If the person is in charge, what happens when you, the only competent individual, leaves?

    If the idiot is loveable and sweet-tempered, you can work around that. If the idiot is a living path of destruction, then fire the idiot or get out as fast as possible.

    [Reply]

    brucej Reply:

    The the issue isn’t his idiocy, it’s the foul-mouthed bully part. Trust me a foul-mouthed bully will wreck a team regardless of competence…being competent merely means it may take longer to fire them. All the while they’re costing your company dearly by driving away others.

    [Reply]

  • not likely

    I call bullshit.
    While we all think things should happen like this, the reality is that this is not the way the world works. whether we like it or not.

    he was our idiot.
    he later died.

    really.

    this blog reads like a hippy’s politically correct dream.

    he could have been outsourced. that would have improved productivity, reduced payroll, and eliminitated rework costs.

    [Reply]

    Esther Schindler Reply:

    I’m sorry you see the world that way.

    It’s not my view, or the view of many people I’ve worked with. I’ve seen teams that do their best to support every member — including the weakest one. If you have not seen that kind of caring, I’m a little sorry for you.

    [Reply]

    Josh Pactor Reply:

    It’s a shame people conflate “kindness to others” with “political correctness”. Treating others with kindness — even if you disagree with them, even if you think they’re a drag or an “idiot” — isn’t about being “politically correct”, it’s about being a decent human being. If it’s not “the way the world works”, maybe we should work harder to change the way the world works.

    [Reply]

  • A Shy Guy

    I once worked with a person who was incompetent and uncaring.

    He might have been competent in a single-task context, but he had the “protective incompetence of programmers” that made him not want to even try anything outside of his interests. Only, his actual interests were nothing to do with productivity, because the whole department was a cost-avoidance measure which was understaffed. As far as management was concerned, we were the janitors of the organization who kept the computers clean so that they could work. The fact that we needed specific knowledge, and a particular organizational structure, was neither known nor appreciated by middle nor upper management. Everyone had personal reasons for working, such as the difficult local job market, debts, car payments, mortgages, and so forth. So eventually, the one semi-clueful manager left, and I left. Then the incompetent person left, and got a better paying job at a place where he had the freedom to focus on one of his specialties.

    I tried to treat him with compassion, but he made it very difficult. He didn’t apologize for making mistakes, and he ranted continually about how stupid everyone was, how much they bother him, how stressful work was, and every time he did this, I started to feel sorry for myself for earning less money, doing more work, and having nobody to even complain to, because the whole system was fucked, and at that time, I didn’t even have anyone in my personal life to let off steam with and refocus on how to positively approach things, so I kept trying to find some sort of silver lining or hope for progress.

    Eventually, my health took a hit, and I resigned after spending a lot of money for tests and my doctor advising me it was stress. It wasn’t stress. I can deal with stress. What it was, was accumulated strain beyond my elastic limit. The divergence beyond what I had to endure and my expectation of reward was too big, and I found that, although I tried to just do my job and hope for better, that was not enough. I tried to focus on micro-goals, but I hit limits on all sides as to what the system would accept. I began to think on how much better the department could be run, and almost tried suggesting this to the upper management (the middle management was manipulative and two-faced, and ignorant of the nature of actual management).

    By a fortunate coincidence, I got so sick that I had to resign. I prayed about it and explained to my family that I wasn’t born to suffer, I was born to live. In the exit interview, my middle manager told her boss that “all he does is help out the network administrator a bit”, when I really did at least a half dozen things, including revising documentation, ordering things, managing the maintenance of machines, tape backup operations, including supervising the incompetent SQL guy who often changed things which broke backups, and training new staff that came on temporary.

    I would literally run the whole department on weekends, and they trusted me because I could and did do all of their tasks when they were not around.

    Yet she acted as if I was just an assistant to one position, and in that moment, I became enlightened as to the depths of the problem, and that the two-faced and dark nature of persona-ego-fear-based-motives was just the way that they had been trained by a system designed to exploit everyone to the point of destruction, and perpetuate this overwork, feeding in young and churning out old and drained.

    Only lateral movement, to another company, saved the individual.

    I had stayed there too long, and I could no longer think of anything compassionate to say to anyone. Furthermore, I hadn’t taken good enough care of myself. I wasn’t compassionate to myself, and yet, I kept thinking “how would I help them to see the light and make life better for everyone?” as if I was Jesus Christ.

    So, although I functioned better, I was the real incompetent one. The first task of anyone is to survive, and I had worked against my own life-forced and burnt myself out. It took me several months to recover and I even now I am weary of trying again. I’m learning about running my own business and working out plans that avoid that type of strain, but the strain of not being employed is also something to bear — a false burden, you don’t own society anything — but still, a burden, because I want to give a lot to society. And be rewarded for it, of course.

    [Reply]

    Teddy Irwell Reply:

    Friend, you should go back to that company and kick the door down. Tell the CEO everything you just wrote above. If they won’t listen, the Chairman of the board… or the shareholders!

    [Reply]

  • entomo

    Wow. Why on earth would you use a gender-specific pronoun when identifying the “idiot” rather than “them”?

    [Reply]

    walla Reply:

    Why do I suspect that if the idiot from the author’s personal anecdote were a woman that people would be making the opposite point and complaining about “political correctness”?

    [Reply]

  • Mark Zaugg

    I love this on many levels.

    First I love Ester’s insight that
    this is a bellwether as to how your team is functioning. It strikes me
    as an extremely quick method to getting a grasp on how a crowd of people
    will contribute to a team. Anecdotally, it holds true for every team I
    participate on across the board – if I’m going to enjoy being part of
    the team I’m going to appreciate a welcoming team that deals with
    diversity well. The most obvious sign is how the “idiot” gets treated.

    Second,
    I’m a member of a whole lot of teams. Simple odds say that eventually
    I’m going to be on the bottom of the bell curve on at least one or two
    of them. When I’m “That Idiot” it’s sure nice to be treated well. It
    helps me feel part of the team and makes me want to try harder to
    contribute.

    When I’m not the village idiot, it’s a good reminder
    to encourage the other’s participation if only to do the parts that I
    don’t like or can’t grasp or am incapable of doing.

    Third, my
    thought on joining a team is to get something done, but also the team
    does not remain static in time, but should proceed and grow. Not all
    idiots are destined to remain in that role, but a poorly functioning
    team will lock their growth. If someone wants to stay in stasis and not
    change their role in the team, while the team remains functional and treats that person well, it’s a benefit for everyone. Stuff gets done, people stay comfortable.

    In
    my experience, no one will take a bigger role or grow their
    responsibility if they haven’t been treated well. Those semi-competent
    people will never transition to fully competent without the willingness
    to grow, plus an already supportive team will extend suitable opportunities once your version of Elliot is willing to take something new on.

    I
    find myself on both sides of the curve in different teams. When I’m on
    the bottom (and treated well), I know I’m on a team of very bright
    people and can learn a lot along the way. When I’m on the top of the
    curve, maybe it’s time to think about how I structure my team to accept
    optimal contributions from everyone.

    [Reply]

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  • Ronan

    I don’t like the term idiot, but Everyone is an idiot to someone in some area of expertise… Nothing like IT industry to attract pretentious people!

    [Reply]

  • Calc

    What do you do if you realize that you are that idiot? (In over your head or skillset.)

    [Reply]

    JY Reply:

    Just play the game. be yourself.

    [Reply]

    vonderGoltzKing Reply:

    I don’t mind being the ‘idiot’, it means I get to ask questions that all the experts on my team are afraid to ask.

    [Reply]

    funklord Reply:

    If you think this way, you might be the jerk, not the idiot.
    Experts are experts because they know when and what to ask.

    [Reply]

  • JY

    ADD, ADHD, blood sugar too high and bouncing off the walls, oblivious to what the boss says and he gets away with it, but everybody loves the guy. And yes….if anybody was to mess with him, our team would rip the arms off them folks and beat’em!

    [Reply]

  • http://blog.lbs.ca Dominic Amann

    The “idiots” on teams I have worked on have almost invariably been managers. I have become “de facto” manager on most of these teams, waiting for the manager to get out of the way before confering with my team as to what would do and how we would do it.

    [Reply]

  • Doug

    I’m sorry, but I think you lose points for using the word “idiot”, even though in quotes, to describe this person. If you were as magnanimous as you make yourself and your team out to be, this word wouldn’t have even crossed your mind, even when trying to describe the situation to others. Please try to find a better descriptor.

    It seems to me that just referring to this person in this way brings about the “bullying, disparagement, unkindness” that you claim is indicative of unhealthy teams. It’s certainly not something I would put up with.

    Just my 2 cents,

    Thanks

    [Reply]

    Esther Schindler Reply:

    I could have used a more gentle word… but then you would not have read the article. <–experience speaking

    [Reply]

    Bile Reply:

    Hardly a compassionate pic….mean spirited like the word stupid…the article is more ‘do as I say and not as I do’ go play on a busy freeway with a blindfold on

    [Reply]

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  • svespie

    I’m the village idiot. This article was interesting. The comments below are even more interesting.

    But I do have a strength than I’ve found many people do not – I refuse to quit. I’ll never quit. It’s all I got.

    [Reply]

    funklord Reply:

    The fact that you’re willing to admit it, probably means you aren’t.
    Or at least not for very long. ;)
    In my experience just about everyone can train themselves for greatness. It’s about willpower, honesty, believing in yourself and understanding that all knowledge is interconnected and therefore cumulative.

    The people who become mediocre tend to think in patterns of:
    I’m not interested.
    I don’t know how because I don’t know how.
    Someone needs to help me.
    I need to concentrate on one thing.

    [Reply]

  • Lorne Malvo

    What do you do when your boss is the idiot, and he’s belligerent and blames people on his team for his mistakes? I was on an IT team like that and it was awful. (Luckily?) the company got bought, and the new owners realized he was not only unskilled in IT, but also rude and angry and subsequently shown the door.

    I would genuinely like to know what to do in that situation. Leave? Report it to upper management (I never did that because I knew they wouldn’t do anything). Outlast them? (that’s what I did)

    [Reply]

    funklord Reply:

    Dunno, if you can’t simply ignore management when they request something stupid, it’s a very bad business environment.
    Everyone makes mistakes, especially management. ;)

    [Reply]

  • David

    In my experience, the “idiot” usually is the project manager, and I don’t think I’m the only one…

    [Reply]

  • Elliot

    I think you are the bottom of the bell curve

    [Reply]

  • TTD

    I work with an awful “idiot” who is consistently rude an abrupt; he refuses to take ownership of problems and has a habit of “bouncing” off of the members of the team to get 3 or 4 accounts/opinions of how things are to be done – only then to claim he cannot do his job as he has conflicting information, blaming the individuals suggestions against each other. He is incapable of thinking for himself, and has to be spoon fed everything – and, boy, does he love to point out any discrepancy that someone might accidentally make when they try and spoon feed him the solution he keeps badgering you for.

    So nothing is ever HIS fault!

    No one wants to code review his work as he regularly has a toddler-tantrum about the code review comments used as a tool for getting at him. He butts into your private conversations, yet he will go to HR if you interrupt him and he feels he has been spoken over (when in a group discussion!)… (awww… diddums!)

    This carries on until some kind of outburst:

    Then, after his regular “once-a-six-month-telling-off-for-shouting-at-a-co-worker” bollocking, he then lands on his feet: He gets a “sweetner” of a relatively cushy side project to keep him out of the harder, busier teamwork. This then means that he works alone, on another one of his trademark “one-big-class” pieces of unmaintainable buggy code that gets exempt from a proper code review cos he is so goddam slow(!), and he never has to write tests for his code, cos he is so goddam slow(!)

    Then after all that, he’s integrated back into the team, where the team is then told “he has to blend in again” (suggesting his memory has been blanked and we have a duty to teach him and get him up to speed again) and the grinding and gnashing of teeth starts again. The team suffering a feeling of constant tip-toeing on egg shells…

    The team gets ‘depressed’ that such a destructive force is allowed to carry on like this and the more it carries on the worst it gets…. Our idiot will throw around the “bullying” word and management backs off, “contains the situation” and tells us all to just get on with it.

    I just hope that one outburst is the final one that digs him his grave – so to speak.

    Yep – my idiot is a complete bastard.

    [Reply]

  • lsatenstein

    My Project idiot was the boss’s son. He was more interested in Playboy mags than the project.

    [Reply]

  • adam

    Its also helpful to remember that sooner or later you will be the idiot or maybe you are already the idiot. I prefer to be the idiot actually, as it is a sign I am pushing myself and there is an opportunity to grow and learn.

    [Reply]

  • Ronnie Corvid

    What do you do when the idiot in question is the CIO?

    [Reply]

  • Yorkshirewoman

    Really interesting article, thank you. I’m guessing that he wasn’t the “idiot” in terms of not being productive though. His contribution was keeping everyone else happy – which is a very real effect.

    [Reply]

  • Peter Houck

    …esteem the least esteemed team member – it is our responsibility to support and encourage everyone on our team – Strengths Finder (Gallup) is helpful in sorting out each person’s abilities so each team member sees the value of each other.

    [Reply]

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  • Dan

    I think at some point, management needs to step in and hold the office idiot more accountable. In my first job coming out of college, I was an account rep. I once screwed up a meeting with UPS, and my boss pulled me into his office and reamed me out. And you know what, I deserved it. From then on, I stepped up my game and quit being such a screw-off on the job. Just because you’re the office idiot, doesn’t mean it should be acceptable to keep acting that way.

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