The Trybaby Syndrome

Identifying and breaking out of this performance challenge.

How often have you needed X and had Y proudly delivered to you? And when Y was delivered, were you so disarmed by how hard the person “tried” that you found yourself accepting the effort displayed instead of the result you wanted? Or perhaps you looked beyond the effort and questioned the person about his or her inability to deliver on X (your desired outcome) and he or she became indignant, stating that, “I tried extra hard at this-what’s the problem?”

This situation occurs far too often in managing people or when purchasing services and dealing with others in the workplace. I call this “trybaby” behavior.

Photo: RTimages

This article identifies the Trybaby Syndrome as a performance challenge and introduces a “Performance Influence-Importance Matrix” to help managers identify the differences between so-called Trybabies, Spinners, Pass-Timers, and Corperformers. Two real-world examples of trybabies, followed by five countermeasures, are offered to help guide managers, coaches, and employees in handling the performance challenge referred to as the Trybaby Syndrome.

The Performance Influence – Importance Matrix

An employee’s effort can be viewed in two dimensions: (1) how much that employee is working on things he or she can actually influence, and (2) how much that employee’s effort drives results that are important to his or her success within the organization. Four types of people can be identified when assessing an individual’s ability to influence a particular outcome, relative to the importance of that outcome to achievement of that person’s key results. The relationship between these two dimensions can be seen in the Performance Influence-Importance Matrix:

Using the Performance Influence-Importance Matrix, we can identify what I call “Trybabies” (Q1), “Spinners” (Q2), “Pass-Timers” (Q3), and “Corperformers” (Q4). The author uses the matrix with executives to discuss their situations and the situations of people in their organizations. Here is a glimpse of each of these generalized types.

Trybabies work on things that they can influence but that are not the most important factors for their successful achievement. They focus on tasks and actions that they are able to positively influence without regard to the impact on required results. Trybabies get stuck mistaking activity for performance that drives key results. The problem for the organization is that the tasks and results the trybaby positively influences are of little or no importance to his or her success within the organization. Without management intervention, the likelihood of correcting a trybaby’s focus and of the trybaby becoming successful in his or her performance arena is diminished.

For example: Pat is a salesperson for an orthopedic sports medical supply company. Formerly an athletic trainer, Pat wants to use her knowledge of orthopedic sports healthcare to sell quality products, thereby increasing her personal income. Pat’s sales presentations to orthopedic surgeons focus on the technical aspects of the products and are usually well-received by doctors. While representing the company and herself as competent and professional is important to Pat’s success and the success of the overall organization, the most important requirement for Pat is to close the sale and obtain an order. She does not focus on this part of the sales process and is therefore not meeting her sales goals. Her sales close is weak and is overshadowed by her product knowledge and informational, product-oriented sales presentations. When her sales manager discusses the situation in general terms with her, she becomes indignant and upset, stating that she is “trying” her very best to represent the company and herself as professional and competent. Without a strong close, Pat’s sales results will continue to stagnate. Pat needs help from her manager to break from her trybaby behavior.

Spinners work on things over which they have little or no influence and that are not important to achievement. They “spin their wheels” and are largely unproductive, contributing little to the work effort.

For example: Jeff is an accountant/manager for an entrepreneurial venture. His job is to manage accounts receivable and accounts payable and to produce quarterly financial reports. Jeff has not produced a financial report on time for two years. His lack of focus on the important result of preparing financial reports on a timely basis causes cash flow problems to go undetected, which exacerbates the problem. Upon closer review, it is apparent that Jeff is spending most of his time working with information technology and experimenting with various accounting software packages-activity that is not within his performance arena. He is failing to produce the desired key results of managing accounts receivable and accounts payable and producing quarterly financial reports. He is a “spinner,” spinning his wheels on unproductive tasks.

Pass-Timers work on things that are considered important within their performance arena but that they do not (or are not able to) influence. These people for instance might spend time focusing and commenting on external conditions, such as inflation, interest rates, and competitors, exclaiming how these factors interfere with their ability to perform. Time spent in this manner serves to “pass the time” unproductively because the individual performer can do very little to influence external factors.

For example: Ron is managing an upscale retail store and his organization wants him to increase average sales per customer. In response to increasing demands by his boss to increase sales, Ron typically complains about one of two things:

  • “We are in an economic downturn and customers, even in this affluent community, will not spend additional dollars with us.”
  • “We do not have enough convenient parking spaces available.”

These concerns are legitimate and important to the business; however, Ron does not have the ability to influence the economy or parking capacity. He does control local advertising to attract customers and has a high degree of influence over the customer’s experience once they enter his store, but his focus on the external factors rather than the factors he can influence impedes his success. His focus on the externals moves him toward the “pass-timer” quadrant.

Corperformers, as I call them, are the preferred performers in this analysis. They work on those things in the workplace that they can influence and that lead to the achievement of important results. They work with a clear purpose, are focused, and are linked with the proper resources to make an important contribution.

For example: Lauren is the star salesperson on her pharmaceutical sales team. She has an effective working relationship with her sales manager, who is clear about the team’s mission and is skilled at setting stretching yet realistic goals with his people. Lauren has a specific, performance-based job description. She is focused on her key result of increasing sales revenues. She meets regularly with her boss to focus her actions on key account opportunities and to solicit any support she may need to help close new business. She knows that her sales manager cares about her and her development. Lauren is clear about the sales force’s purpose, knows where she fits into that team effort, and is focused on performance actions that drive her most important key result of sales revenue. She is a “corperformer.”

Each of these four behavior patterns has its own set of performance issues and challenges. Even corperformers need to work continually on maintaining their focus and seeking clear direction to guide their actions. Effective and professional managerial leadership can systematically work with and eliminate most performance challenges, including the Trybaby Syndrome. Trybabies, however, present an especially difficult performance challenge since they are usually doing what they prefer to do, and experiencing intrinsic reinforcement for their perceived accomplishments. They are often happy low performers.[1]

Trybabies at Work

Examples of the Trybaby Syndrome abound in any workplace-they can appear in any industry, at any level of knowledge, education, and/or expertise, and at any level within the organizational structure. Consider how you might react to or handle the following situation:

George is a retail store manager who works very hard at keeping his store neat, organized, and clean. In fact, he personally spends time straightening products on shelves, supervising the janitors waxing floors, and organizing inventory in the storage area out of sight of customers. The most important results for each store (and two key result areas for George) established by his company are: (1) to increase the average sale per customer, and (2) to ensure that, as store manager, he knows the names of 90 percent of the store’s primary customers. George performs poorly in these designated areas of importance. He suffers from the Trybaby Syndrome: he works on things that he can influence (keeping a neat, organized, and clean store) but that are not important to his goals and key result areas (increasing the average sale per customer and knowing the names of most of the primary customers). While the results of a neat, organized, and clean store are important to the success of the store and the overall organization, these are not important results for George himself to accomplish-these are tasks for which other employees should be responsible. George is working hard but is not achieving his key results as the store manager.

Trybabies often get stuck in mistaking activity on something they can influence-even though it is of lesser or no importance to achieving valued results-for real performance-oriented action that leads to achievement of key results. To break out of the Trybaby Syndrome, these people need to take performance-oriented action that is important to results achievement and success within their performance arena.[2] An effective managerial leader will challenge people to work on things that they can influence that are important to the achievement of mutually agreed upon goals.

The Five Trybaby Break-Out Principles

Now that you have identified the “trybaby” performance challenge, what can you do about it? My experience in working with managers to help them convert their trybabies, as well as spinners and pass-timers, into high performers has led me to the following five countermeasures:

Principle 1: Meaning and Purpose. Identify the key results each performer should strive to attain-these should be aligned with a meaningful and motivating purpose.[3] Help the performer recognize that the job you are asking him or her to do is important to achieving those meaningful key results. People want to believe that their work is valued and significant. Each performer must be made to understand why his or her key result areas are important and how his or her performance fits into the overall purpose and direction of the work unit or organization.

Principle 2: Expectations and Job Fit. Ensure that the performer knows what is expected of him or her and that the job requirements reasonably match his or her work preferences.[4] Having a clear, results-oriented job description that matches a person’s work preferences and skills helps focus performance. High person-job fit is critical to performance success.

Principle 3: Delivering Quality Feedback. Effectively deliver quality performance feedback to the performer to help drive important key results.[5] Clear, concise, and targeted feedback can shape important performance behaviors. People need to know how they are doing in terms of success and opportunities for improvement.

Principle 4: Recognition and Praise. Recognize and praise the performer’s completion of key actions that are aligned with key results. People are looking for consistent and relatively frequent recognition for their efforts at goal achievement.

Principle 5: Pay Attention to Development and Success. Pay attention to the performer’s performance and related matters in a way that shows you care about his or her development and success. People want to know that they are more than a cog in a wheel. Providing performers with personalized attention around their developmental needs and performance successes is important.

While there are other guiding principles that a manager may use to help break a trybaby, spinner, or pass-timer out of their performance challenges and into higher performance, these five principles represent the most basic. Independent research by the Gallup Organization and by the Saratoga Institute supports these principles as critical to the focusing, developing, and retaining of human capital talent.[6] Managerial leaders who do not positively intervene with trybabies and other personnel to improve their performance focus may be contributing to sub-par performance and may ultimately see these people join the costly turnover ranks. Managerial leaders are encouraged to identify trybaby and other low-performing behavior among their people and apply these countermeasures to help maximize performance within their organizations.


[1] C.D. Kerns. “Putting Performance and Happiness Together in the Workplace,” Graziadio Business Report, 11, no. 1 (2008). This article highlights the importance of performance and happiness to the long-term success of a business, describes the key dimensions of happiness in the workplace, and offers a self-assessment tool.

[2] C.D. Kerns. Breaking out of the TRYBABY SYNDROME: Helping Your People Go Beyond Just Trying To Get Results, book manuscript submitted for publication, (2008). This book will provide managers with an understandable framework and practical approach to helping their employees become more successful. It provides a model to diagnose and formulate a “hopeful prognosis and break-out process for the Trybaby Syndrome.

[3] A. Wresniewski, J. Tosti. “Career as a Calling,” in J.H. Greenhaus, G.A. Callanan (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Career Development, (California: Sage Publications, 2005). A. Wresniewski, J.E. Dutton, G. Debebe. “Interpersonal Sensemaking and the Meaning of Work,” Research in Organizational Behavior, 25, (2003); 93-135. This article studies how organizational practices like job crafting and context impact work orientation.

[4] C.D. Kerns. “The Power of Performance Profiling,” Graziadio Business Report, 4, no. 1, (2001). Provides a detailed description of how to develop a performance profile of key results and key actions along with people and technical skills for a specific position.

[5] C.D. Kerns. “Assertive Performance Feedback,” Graziadio Business Report, 10, no. 4, (2007). Provides a framework and worksheet to help practitioners prepare to deliver performance feedback in a quality manner.

[6] J. Fitz-enz. The ROI of Human Capital, (New York: AMACOM, 2000). See Chapter 2 for an overview of the Saratoga studies, which retrospectively support the five Trybaby break-out principles. R. Wagner, J.K. Harter. 12: The Elements of Great Managing (New York: Gallup Press, 2006). See the first, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and eighth elements for retrospective empirical support of the five trybaby break-out principles.

Author of the article
Charles D. Kerns, PhD, MBA
Charles D. Kerns, PhD, MBA, , is a professor of applied behavioral science at the Graziadio School of Business and Management. He has more than 30 years of business, management, and consulting experience. Through his private consulting firm, Corperformance, he has implemented performance management programs and systems to help companies from many industries maximize their results. Since 1980, he has taught in almost every program in the Graziadio School, first as an adjunct faculty member, then, since 2000, as a member of the full-time faculty. He has also served as the associate dean for Academic Affairs. Dr. Kerns holds a Diplomate, ABPP, in both Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Organizational-Business Consulting Psychology.
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