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Leadership

The 20/60/20 Rule: How to Handle Misaligned Employees

Trying to win over 100 percent of your team is a fool's mission.
Image credit: pixdeluxe | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Business Leader, Author, Keynote Speaker

No matter how effectively we communicate and execute change in our company, some team members just won't accept and adapt to that change as fast as others. What we sometimes forget is that some employees will actively work against our efforts to drive change in our organization. They will recruit employees to work against you. After all, misery loves company. These individuals could even be among your most tenured employees. 

The best way to deal with this challenge is to understand what I call the "20/60/20 rule.” I first heard this concept referenced when I was an executive with Waste Management. Our CEO had been hired to turn the company around after a scandal. Legend has it, he called a leadership meeting and made this statement: “Twenty percent of you know where we are going and are on board with it. Sixty percent of you understand the need for change but are skeptical that we can really do this. My job is to win you over. And 20 percent of you do not agree with our plan and have already made up your minds about it. My commitment is to ensure you a fast and graceful exit.”

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From that moment on, I have never forgotten the 20/60/20 rule. I urge you to keep this concept firmly in mind as you go about building your company. Trying to win over 100 percent of your team is a fool’s mission.

We want our team to take our ideas and run with them with across-the-board commitment and enthusiasm, but it’s just not always going to turn out that way. Plus, you’re not in this to win a popularity contest. You are leading change to build a healthier culture and a more profitable business. Like it or not, a portion of your team will never agree with where you are going. The faster you can identify and eliminate those employees, the faster you can advance your agenda.

Before we take a closer look at the importance of finding that 20 percent of your team who make up the non-followers and how to deal with them, let’s get back to the other 80 percent for a moment.

Consider that group of employees who know where you’re going and are on board with it. Among this group, identify your opinion leaders -- those employees who consistently seem to know what’s going on with your team and who tend to have the most influence on those around them. They may not necessarily have the high-profile titles or job functions, but they have the true pulse of the organization, and others listen to or watch them. Spend time with these opinion leaders to further emphasize what you are trying to do and how you value their assistance. Help them to help you. They can have a tremendous influence on those employees who understand the need for change but who may be carrying a degree of doubt or uncertainty about how it’s all going to play out. You can’t win over all of these employees by yourself, so empower your opinion leaders to move the ball forward with you. 

Related: Culture Makes or Breaks a Company When Crisis Hits

Now, what about that the group at the bottom? Should you simply fire everyone who disagrees with your direction? Of course not. Many of those who disagree with you may have valid opinions that can actually make your plans for change stronger. Rather than immediately assuming they must be weeded out, consider first whether they may be employees you can bring along. 

At some point, however, the debate, the discussions and the reevaluation of your plans all have to be wrapped up. No more complainers, no more cynics. Even if certain team members still disagree, they must be willing to align with the plan. 

For many of us, this is often easier to say than to do. Some of those employees in that bottom tier are technically competent or even excellent. Letting go of a technically proficient employee hurts. You’ve simply got to accept that the 20/60/20 rule requires that anyone who is part of your organization must be technically excellent and fully aligned with your company’s values and direction. This is not an either/or proposition.

Some time ago I had to let a few employees go after I concluded they were part of that group who would never go along with important changes and new directions I was facilitating. Immediately after their dismissal, a few other team members came up to me and asked, “Brian, what took you so long?” How’s that for direct feedback? I had to admit that I had been too slow to act, failing to take into account the toll these employees were taking on their peers and on our company as a whole. 

Related: 4 Ways to Coach the Uncoachable Employee

In other words, I should have kept a closer eye on 20/60/20. As a side note, I was making a presentation in Orlando when an audience member raised his hand and said “20/60/20 is not the right ratio. I don’t have 20 percent on the bottom. It’s more like 5 percent at my company.” I smiled and assured the participant that 20/60/20 has no scientific basis. It is to make a point. Whatever the number is -- 20 percent, 5 percent, 1 percent -- most organizations have some employees who may never fit the culture, and your job as a leader is to either bring them fully on board or weed them out.