How Do I Fire Someone and Still Win Well?

Firing With Compassion: How Do I Fire Someone and Still Win Well?

Managers often have to fire people, but there is a huge difference between managers who do it well and those who make it a terrible, humiliating experience. Firing someone is one of the most difficult things most managers will ever do. Even so, removing a person from your team is an important part of winning. Removing poor performers tells your contributing people that you value their time and effort.  When you remove troublesome individuals you help everyone become more productive–especially you. A troublesome poor performer can soak up to 80 percent of your time when you don’t take proper care of the situation.

What Inspired This Post

We had an overwhelming response to David’s recent post, Employee to Valuable to Fire? 6 Leadership Strategies. It takes courage to establish clear standards of behavior and hold even your “high performers” accountable for destructive behaviors.

This has inspired several of you to ask us an important follow-up question, “So, what if I have to fire someone, who’s a really nice guy, but is not the right fit and is really struggling? I’ve trained. I’ve coached. I’ve found a mentor. I just don’t think they can get there from here… can I fire them and still be a Winning Well manager?”

As we share in Winning Well.

Now you might think Winning Well managers have everyone focused on the right behaviors, hold them accountable, and inspire greatness, so there would be no need to fire anyone. Sadly, even the strongest managers find themselves in situations where the best solution for all parties is to part ways. Winning Well managers know how to fire someone with grace and dignity

So yes, if you’re going to win, there will come a time where you need to fire people. How you do it determines if you win well. This trips up many managers.

As we were in the early stages of writing together, we were surprised at how similar our experiences were when it came to letting someone go. Both of us had numerous examples of people for whom we had done everything we possibly could, finally had to have the tough conversation to let them go, and then they sent us a friendly Facebook request and we’re still in touch.

They don’t all go that way of course. And it’s important to understand the gravity of the situation. We totally agree with a client who shared, “If you ever reach a place where you can affect a person’s livelihood and family without a second thought, then it’s time for you to resign.”

A Mindset Shift

One fundamental mindset to embrace before you can help your people achieve results together is not everyone is meant to be part of every group, team, or organization.

On the surface, this may seem self-evident, and yet you’ve probably been part of an organization or team that suffered because those with the responsibility to ensure fit and mission alignment did not do their job. At the heart of terminating employees with grace and dignity is the understanding that the human being in front of you has strengths and value–strengths and value that just don’t work in this current position.

If you need to fire someone, it doesn’t really matter if she did something wrong or simply isn’t an ideal fit. We’re talking about a mindset you bring to the process: This isn’t personal, and not everyone is meant to be part of every team.

One of the most important pieces of the termination decision is the awareness that when you help someone move on, you serve that person too. This is a vital part of knowing how to say good-bye: realizing that you don’t do an employee any favors by tolerating poor performance, mission alignment, or abuse of co-workers.

How Do I Fire Someone and Still Win Well?

Every situation is different of course. And please involve your HR manager to do this well. On top of that, we offer this perspective.

First, do your homework. When you prepare properly, you make it less likely you’ll run into problems with termination decisions. That’s why we stress the importance of clear expectation. If you get frustrated with an employee’s performance, but your expectations weren’t clear, that’s your fault, not hers. Be diligent with clear expectations know your company’s policies and procedures, and go through the right processes to help the person perform or prepare for the termination.

Now let’s assume you’ve done all the work leading up to the termination decision. You’ve clarified expectations, provided necessary training, given appropriate second chances, and still it did not work out. And now your stuck with “How?”

Human Resources professionals will rightly tell you to keep the conversation short, clear and direct. Generally, in the presence of a witness, you will tell the employee what is happening, have her pack, and escort her off-site. Don’t apologize. Be aware of security issues; we’ve both conducted termination where we had extra security planted around the corner if things got “crazy” with an employee who became abusive or threatening.

When You Want to Say More

When your heart calls for more than a simple, straightforward response keep in mind:

  1. It’s not about you.
    It can be tempting to express your own difficulty or emotional anguish about letting someone go. Don’t. A simple, neutrally-worded statement along the lines of “These conversations are not easy” is adequate.
  2. He’s not performing, but he’s not bad.
    Be clear about the behaviors that are a reason for the termination. Referencing the behaviors, not the person.
  3. She has a future and could use some hope.
    Help her to fail forward. When terminating someone for something stupid he/she did (like an ethics violation) you could share your experiences of others who have bounced back “You don’t have to let this define you. I’ve seen many people who have bounced back and had vibrant careers.”
  4. Allow space for questions.
    It’s compassionate to say something like, “I know this can be a lot to take in. Do you have any questions about the process or what happens next?”
  5. You can say goodbye.
    We’ve never regretted taking a moment to connect and say goodbye. If you were close, it’s okay to say something personal if it feels right.

Compassionate leaders stay compassionate. Stay firm, don’t back-pedal. But it’s okay to say, “Good-bye,” and, “You can survive this.”

Executive Visits: 4 Strategic Approaches for Influence and Impact

Executive Visits: 4 Strategic Approaches for Influence and Impact

You know executive visits are important. And let’s face it, they come more naturally to some of us than others. Executive visits can backfire, or they can be brilliant. They can be casual or deliberate.  Sometimes just wandering around is exactly what you and your team need. You just show up and listen, smell and feel.

AND I would argue that the leaders I see best leveraging executive visits as a key component of their communication plan design their visits as deliberately as they do the rest of their strategy.

They consider carefully–why am I showing up? What do I want my team to think, feel and do as a result of my being there?

And they show up to answer that question.

4 Ways to Focus Your Executive Visits For More Influence and Impact

Before we start,  I’m going to assume you’ve mastered the essential elements of MBWA (management by wandering around) versus OCHTC (“Oh crap, here they come.” If you missed that popular post, start here. 

Beyond that, here are four approaches to strategic executive visits that can help reinforce and build a Winning Well culture.

Clarity

The Purpose: Sharing Vision; Reinforcing MIT Goals and Behaviors; Leading By Example

The Approach: On a visit like this, you’ve got one or two strategic priorities you want to be sure everyone understands.  There are lots of ways to do this. Do your homework and find out about your local role models of desired behaviors — spend time with them and celebrating them. Strategic storytelling works great for a visit like this. Share your personal (or customer) stories connecting what you’re asking people to do to why. 

One of my favorite clarity approaches to executive visits in my Verizon store executive role was to just spend time on the floor of the store, talking to customers and modeling the behaviors I was insistent on reinforcing. It’s hard to argue that a behavior doesn’t work when they see your leader modeling the way.

Capacity

The Purpose: Learning–Do your employees have the training, tools, and resources they need to succeed?

The Approach: Lots of listening. Lots of questions.

  • What do you need to really improve the customer experience?
  • Is the new system making your job easier or harder? Why?
  • What additional training do you need?
  • What do you wish I knew about _______?

Commitment

The Purpose: Building trusting relationships and increasing accountability.

The Approach: Reinforcing expectations and key behaviors. Paying attention to what’s really happening and the customer experience.

In Winning Well, we share an example an executive who, despite a culture of “Gotcha” in field visits went out on a commitment tour each year.

Bill is a retail store director who lived in a trust but verify culture. What this meant was that he and every executive above him were expected to constantly show up in stores to experience what was happening as customers would.

Is there a bird’s next over the the front entrance risking bird poop on the customer’s head? Are customers being served in a timely way? Did the store look inviting, with all light bulbs on and everything dusted and ready to go? Were the employees up to speed on the latest products and services?

There was no question. Knowing an executive could stop in at any moment kept everyone on their toes. The stores were undoubtedly cleaner and the customer service was better as a result.

Of course, these visits were always stressful. The general sentiment was “no such thing as a good visit”–the best you could hope for was “not a bad one.”

Which is why Bill came up with an idea to change the experience.

Every summer, instead of the usual pop-in store visits, Bill rented a van, wrapped it in the company logo and fun graphic and hit the road visiting all his stores.

The schedule was announced ahead of time, and there was one big rule: Employees would receive only positive feedback, celebration and fun.

If something was wrong, Bill would quietly call the manager’s attention to it. If it was a small thing like an unplugged sign, he would just plug it in and fix it himself while no one was looking.

These tours had a clear goal: To notice what was right. He did his homework and cane prepared with all kinds of recognition, along with a token of appreciation for every employee.

His operations manager came along and took tons of pictures of every visit. Every evening they created an upbeat collage that included the names of everyone recognized and why. The “postcard” was emailed to the entire region every evening.

The other store directors jokingly referered to the month as Bill’s “love tour,” but Bill was confident enough to withstand the razzing.

The truth is, the employees loved the love.

Results skyrocketed during that time. The employees wanted to be on top of their game when the tour stopped by their store, and, as you can imagine, there was not a birds nest in sight. Everything was dusted and ready to go, and the employees knew all about the latest products and services.

These planned visits caused everyone to go through their checklists and remember what a great experience looked like.  this was so much more effecitve than a “gotcha ” pop-in visit.

Yes, Bill still had to show up unannounced at other time. Winning Well requires holding people accountable. But the love tour helped remind employees of what they were capable of doing and built commitment.

Curiosity

Another vital type of executive visit, which seems to be quite hard for some executives, is a curiosity tour. It can be tricky.

The Purpose: To set aside what you think you know and truly listen to employees and customers.

The Approach: Show up humbly and ask strategic open-ended questions. Talk to as many folks as you can in as many roles as possible. Talk to customers. Resist the urge to talk too much or to “sell” why their struggle isn’t real. Listen. Take notes. And really consider.

Every single time I’ve gone out on a curiosity tour, I learned something useful. When I work with clients I take this approach too. You wouldn’t believe how many times an executive will ask me, “How in the world did you figure out that was an issue?” and the answer is almost always the same.

I asked.

You can too.

No matter what kind of executive visit your planning, if you can show up with true confident humility with a balanced focus on results and relationships, you will make a positive impact.

Related Thoughts

Town Hall Meetings: 6 Mistakes to Avoid in Your Leadership Message

My Fast Company Article on Listening: 7 Ways to Build a Culture of Listening

5 Secrets to Great Skip Level Meetings

 

Too valuable to fire?

Employee Too Valuable to Fire? 6 Leadership Strategies

Is Anyone Ever Too Valuable to Fire?

Have you ever worked with an obnoxious colleague who seemed to be protected because the employee was considered too valuable to fire?

Maybe you’re a team leader who has one of these brilliant bullies on your team.

If so, you might not be surprised at what I watched happen at a corporate leadership development program I was facilitating. The HR Director had set out materials on every table – including dishes of candy.

A tall, lanky man entered the room, went straight to the back row, asked the HR Director and his own supervisor if he had to attend the program. When they told him he needed to be there if he wanted to lead a team, he threw a tantrum.

He picked up the dish of candy, threw it against the wall, swept the papers from the table, and unleashed a string of profanity.

In most organizations, that behavior would be a “career limiting move” so I was curious how the HR Director and his supervisor would respond.

They walked away.

I asked the HR Director how she was going to address his behavior.

She replied, “Oh that? That was tame. He’s been far worse, but I’m not allowed to address his behavior. The CEO says he’s too important to lose. He’s really smart and we need him on this project.”

Too Valuable to Fire?

If you’re a leader who tolerates abusive behavior, harassment, or bullying because the employee is smart or talented, you’re making a big mistake.

Think about the messages you’re sending to your team.

First, you’ve told your team that you’re weak. You’re not a strong enough leader to create a positive work environment.

Next, you’ve told your team members that you don’t value them. If you did value them, you would ensure they were treated humanely.

Finally, you’ve told everyone that this kind of abuse, harassment, and bullying is okay. You’ve planted seeds for even more chaos and disruption.

The reality is: no one is too valuable to fire. If you’re doing work that requires a team of people working together, no one brilliant person can do everything themselves.

It’s easy to get caught in a trap when you think you either have to tolerate the bad behavior or else lose the talent. Fortunately, that trap is an illusion. You have powerful leadership tools and choices to make. Here are six leadership strategies to help you deal with an employee who seems like they’re too valuable to fire:

  1. Pick Your Problems

Leaders recognize that they don’t get to chose if they have problems. It’s not “if problems” but “which problems.” The choice is Which set of problems do you want to have? Before you can do anything else, you’ve got to face reality: you have a serious issue here and you’re going to have serious problems.

Which problems do you want? The problems where everyone leaves and the team degenerates into chaos or the problems where you figure out how to address the issues and build a high-performance culture?

  1. What Does Success Look Like?

One of your most important leadership responsibilities is to capture, communicate, and clarify what success looks like for your team. When you’re interviewing, when you’re onboarding, when you’re meeting with your people…consistently reinforce what success looks like. What results will you achieve together? How will you achieve them? How will you work together, treat one another, and build healthy professional relationships?

Clarify what success looks like from the beginning and you’re less likely to hire, much less have to fire, someone for abuse, harassment, and bullying behaviors.

  1. Develop Early

As you work with your people, pay attention to their development from the first day. Use the Competence / Confidence model to quickly give them the feedback they need to grow. Brilliant bullies are often in the upper right quadrant because they aren’t as good as they think they are – they’re undermining their own performance by driving others away.

It is much easier to deal with a behavioral performance issue when you first see it than to address it once it is entrenched.

  1. Ditch the Diaper Drama

One of our favorite Winning Well leadership behaviors is to speak the truth directly, but in a way that builds relationships. Don’t wrap the stink in layers of self-protection (the way that modern diaper pails do) to cover the stink, but don’t solve the problem.

Directly address abuse, harassment, and bullying by describing what you’ve observed. Often, just the act of describing what you saw and heard will help the other person adjust their behavior.

I once had a high-value employee yell at me: “I’m tired of you acting like Hitler.” (His report was three weeks overdue and he’d run out of grace period to get it done.) I responded with the “Notice” step from the INSPIRE model: “I noticed that you just called me Hitler. Last I checked, I hadn’t committed any genocide.” Then I followed up with the “Probe” step: “What’s going on?”

When he was calmly confronted with his own behavior, he calmed down and we were able to talk about the real issue and make an agreement that we would never use that kind of language again.

  1. Manage Up – Quickly

If you suspect (or know for certain) that your boss doesn’t want to lose this person, get in front of it. Don’t do anything without their buy-in. You don’t want to have to back-pedal on a major decision and lose credibility. Talk with your boss about the behaviors, the impact on your team, the way it affects performance, and the alternatives they’re willing to accept.

You can also ditch the diaper drama in this conversation: “What level of abuse and harassment are you willing to tolerate for this person’s performance?”

  1. Rally the Team

One of the most awesome examples I’ve ever seen of a manager who had to deal with an employee too valuable to fire was Allan, a senior engineer facing a global product launch. He had a brilliant, but abusive, team member who was a key contributor to the project. The entire team had spoken with him individually about this person. Allan had done everything he could and it was time to terminate.

He spoke with senior vice president who told him: “I won’t stand in your way if you want to let this guy go, but this is totally your call. You are still responsible for getting the product launch done on time. It that doesn’t happen, it will likely mean your job.”

Allan chose to terminate the problem employee’s employment and then met with his team. “That employee is no longer with us,” he told them. “We still have to meet our deadline. I believe in us and I know we can do it, but without him, it’s not going to be easy. How can we do it?”

The team was grateful, energized, and innovative in coming up with ways they could meet their deadline. Productivity soared.

“It was a major gut check,” Allan shared with me, “I was worried about my own job, but I’m so glad I made the decision I did. I chose to believe in my team – and I’m glad I did.”

Your Turn

You might be wondering what happened to the company where I met the candy-thrower.

I explained to the executive team that if they didn’t confront this man’s behavior, they should stop wasting money on leadership development (because your behavior tells your people that you don’t actually value leadership), should spend the money on recruiting (because no one will stick around to deal with that every day), and prepare to miss their next product development deadlines (because the caustic atmosphere was killing everyone else’s productivity).

Leave us a comment and share your best practices when confronted with an employee who seems as if they’re too valuable to fire.

Employee Engagement - Avoid Tremendous Leadership Mistake

Employee Engagement – Avoid This Tremendous Leadership Mistake

Employee Engagement – Play the Game, Don’t Game the Score

When you see low employee engagement scores, what is your first reaction?

I spoke with a company executive who was upset with his engagement scores. “The numbers are horrible,” he said. “Can you help us with some team-building?”

I replied, “Probably not.”

He looked at me with a combination of shock and amusement.  He wasn’t used to consultants telling him they didn’t want his money.

“Okay, tell me why not?”

It’s not that I wasn’t willing to help – of course, I would. But when morale stinks, employee engagement scores are down the drain, and your people are upset, team building isn’t the solution.

In fact, it’s a tremendous mistake that will almost always make things worse.

Start With Why

Low employee engagement scores are the symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. Leaders who are Winning Well focus on playing the game, not gaming the score. That means they don’t try to manipulate the score with team-building, pizza, or incentives – they stay focused on the critical behaviors that drive performance and results.Employee engagement - play the game don't game the score

Employee engagement is no exception. Focus on the score and you’re lost. Instead, play the game: focus on the behaviors that create the score.

When I asked the executive why his people were upset, he wasn’t sure.

As we dug deeper, we discovered that there were significant breakdowns of clarity and commitment. There were problems communicating major organizational changes, one mid-level manager who had become territorial and was needlessly frustrating other departments, and front-line leaders who were driving talent away by scaring people into performance.

Fix The Real Problem

Don’t try to motivate your way out of a mess. Fix the mess. (Tweet This)

For this executive, that meant apologizing for the communication problems, getting the right information out to everyone, listening to and addressing the concerns his people had about the new process, and taking aside the territorial manager for some one-on-one coaching and accountability. Then he invested in leadership development for his front-line leaders and we worked with the middle-level managers to reinforce the front-line leaders’ new focus on results and relationships.

Don’t use team-building in response to problems or low morale. Fix the communication problems. Improve the process issue that prevents people from doing their job.

Icing On The Employee Engagement Cake

Team-building is often loathed and panned by employees and managers alike because it can be such a waste of time – a well-intentioned, but a completely ineffectual response to a problem that takes real work to solve.

Done properly, real team-building is the icing on a good cake.  It takes a solid foundation and makes it something truly special.

Imagine trying to spread frosting on a cake that is only half-cooked. You’d a have a nasty, goopy mess that ends up in the trash. You can’t frost a half-baked cake and you can’t use motivation or team-building in place of fundamentals.

Your Turn

Leave us a comment and share: How do you make sure you’re not trying to “motivate your way out of a mess”? Or if you’ve got a particularly awful example of this mistake at work, you can share that too.