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.

Massive Failures - What Great Leaders Do Next

Massive Failures? What Great Leaders Do Next

What do you do when you’ve screwed up and everyone knows it? Your failures weren’t just mistakes in judgment…you let yourself down. You didn’t keep your commitment. You hurt people you are supposed to help. Your team looks at you with disappointment.

Now what?

We recently spent a week in Germany sharing Winning Well practices with project managers from throughout Europe and the Middle East.

One of the most striking aspects of our travel in Berlin was the way in which Germany has chosen to confront its own history.

In the center of Berlin you will find monuments to the millions of victims of the Nazi regime. Holocaust education is mandatory for every student. Sections of the Berlin wall remain along with memorials to those who were killed trying to cross that border.

The ways in which Germany has acknowledged and taken responsibility are solemn and humbling examples of how to address your own failures so you can rebuild your influence and credibility.

big mistakes what great leaders do Holocaust Memorial photo

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany

 

  1. Don’t Hide
    Germany has chosen not to run from its past. It is literally out in the open for everyone to see. When you screw up, break a promise, or hurt someone, don’t pretend it didn’t happen. Acknowledge it. Own it.
  1. Apologize
    German leaders up to this day have apologized with statements of shame and repentance. Many leaders struggle to apologize for fear that it will make them look weak or ruin their credibility. The opposite is true. It takes strength to apologize and a straightforward apology builds your credibility. It signals that your team can trust you and it models how they should behave when they let one another down.
  1. Learn and Make It Right Going Forward
    When you’ve hurt someone or broken your word, do what you can to rectify the situation. These actions and commitments don’t erase what was done and, depending on the severity of your behavior, you may not regain the trust of those you hurt, but they do give you a chance to rebuild your credibility, influence, and relationships. Following large reparation payments and support for survivors, Germany has committed itself to human rights and living up to ideals of human dignity, diversity, and respect.

Progress Not Perfection

It’s not perfect.

Germany continues to struggle with anti-Semitism and the challenge of welcoming refugee immigrants while integrating new arrivals into a culture that strives to live up to its ideals of diversity and respect.

Your team doesn’t expect you to be a perfect person. They’re not perfect and when they see you screw up, own your failures, and move forward, you make it more likely that they’ll trust you and be able to do the same.

Final Thoughts

We recognize that for some readers this may be a challenging article. We do not mean to make light of the pain you have experienced nor would we suggest that you should readily trust someone only because they have apologized.

For others, we recognize the challenge that comes with discussing what has become the embodiment of evil in our age. We do not intend to make light of these events nor make false equivalencies between a leader’s broken promise and the systematic extermination of human beings. Even so, the principles that apply here apply to us all.

Lead well – the world needs you.

trust the trenches

Trust Builders: Five Ways To Convince Your Team You Trust Them

If your team doesn’t think you trust them, there’s no way they’ll trust you. And of course, when results are lagging or stakes are high, you’re only human if your first inclination is to be just a little skeptical. After all, there’s a lot at stake.
And yet, time and time again, we see that the teams with the biggest turnarounds have one thing in common—their leader believes in the team’s ability to accomplish the extraordinary and believes in their ability to make it happen.

Trust Builders: 5 Ways To Convince Your Team You Trust Them

Today we share a few ways trusting more leads to better results.

1.Set audacious goals.

Oh sure, your team may grumble, but managers who win well know there’s no greater gift you can give your team than leading them toward head-turning results. Set the bar high and then tell them, “I believe in you. I know what this team is capable of.  Now let’s figure out just how we can make this happen together.”

Show trust by believing it’s possible.

2. Believe in them.

We watched Sam, a manager in a small nonprofit, handle this masterfully with his direct report. The organization worked to ensure water quality in mountain streams. Laura, a free spirit who cared passionately about her people and clean water, managed a team of paid engineers and volunteer inspectors. She worked hard but her team wasn’t satisfied with her performance. They wanted to see her in the field more; she didn’t know how she could make them happy, and she didn’t feel she was making a big enough impact in a cause she cared deeply about. She came into Sam’s office, slumped down in a folding chair, and declared, “I’m done.” She said she would turn in her resignation, that she’d lost faith in her ability to be effective.
Sam was devastated. She was one of his rock stars. How had he missed conveying that to her? Sam did not accept her resignation. “You may have lost your belief in yourself, but you have a problem,” he said. “I do? What’s that?” “I still believe in you. You can quit on yourself, but don’t expect me to quit on you.”
Of course, that conversation was only the start. It eventually led to Laura’s taking a more balanced view of her accomplishments and gaining the confidence she needed to continue her vital work.
Show trust by believing in their capabilities.

3. Invite them to come along.

Early in her career, one of Karin’s first bosses, Gail, brought Karin with her to senior-level meetings, arguing that “no one could explain it better” than she could. Of course, that wasn’t true; Gail was a seriously gifted explainer. She trusted Karin would do okay and was secure enough to give up the spotlight. We are amazed at how many bosses are afraid to give such opportunities to their team.

Show trust by sharing the stage.

4. Admit what you don’t know.

Show your team you trust them by admitting you don’t have all the answers. Trust them with your concerns. You’ll be surprised how your people rise to the occasion when you trust them with your questions.

Show trust by being real.

5. Encourage them to meet without you.

A great way to show trust in your team is to give them a big hairy problem and ask them to meet to figure it out. Be sure to define what success looks like. Get any information, criteria, and parameters they may need out of your head and into theirs first—otherwise, they’ll spin their wheels.

Show trust by getting out of the way.

Your Turn

What are your favorite ways to show trust in your team?

collaboration - can we trust you

Collaboration – Can We Really Trust You?

It’s easy to talk about collaboration. It’s much harder to do it.

After visiting one of our clients in Guatemala City, Karin, Sebastian, and I traveled to Antigua, Guatemala where my daughter owns a clothing design business. She took us to Hobbitengango, a Tolkein-inspired Hobbit-like village set in the mountains overlooking a beautiful Guatemalan valley whose motto is “Disconnect to reconnect.”collaboration - building trust

There, we met Dan, one of the visionaries and architects behind the solar and wind-powered village (where you can stay overnight in a Hobbit house and enjoy fantastic food.) Dan is passionate about Guatemala’s natural resources. He works to fight deforestation, regrow Guatemala’s forests, and clean up trash in the countryside.

He shared some of the challenges he encountered creating what has become a popular tourist destination.

When he started out, Dan encountered a man who was illegally harvesting lumber. He called the authorities. They caught the man and asked if Dan wanted to press charges.

Instead, Dan offered the man a job: planting trees.

“He needed to make a living and support his family. He can’t do that from jail,” Dan said. “Now he’s able to provide and he’s repairing some of the damage he did to the forest.”

Dan shared another incident where a car drove off the road and into a neighboring farmer’s field where it did a lot of damage. As soon as he heard about the damage, Dan went to see what had happened.

When he arrived at the field, a woman “rushed out of her house, waving a machete, and yelling, saying I destroyed her fields and don’t care about anyone.”

Dan explained that another motorist had caused the damage. He had also already called his soil construction expert to repair her field. In addition, he would build a fence for her property at his expense to prevent future problems.

“She seemed surprised that I didn’t fight back, that I didn’t want to argue.”

Dan smiled, then said, “Why make enemies when you can make friends?”

Why make enemies when you can make friends?

Land in the And

We meet many leaders who talk about the value of collaboration, who want their people working together, and who get frustrated when their colleagues won’t cooperate (which often means “why won’t you see things my way?”)

It caught our attention is that, as a leader, Dan wasn’t just “being nice” in building the relationships with his neighbor and the illegal logger. He was focused on achieving his business results: reversing damage to the forest and building a viable visitor attraction. He does it by building collaborative, results-focused relationships.

This is the heart of Winning Well: your ability to “land in the and” – to focus on both results and relationships, to show up with confidence and humility.

Collaboration – Can We Trust You?

Real collaboration isn’t easy because it requires you to put people before projects and truly invest in the other person’s success. How can you help your colleague achieve their results while they help you with yours?

If you’re in a cutthroat work environment and true collaboration is rare, this might feel incredibly vulnerable and perhaps even naïve.

In these situations, don’t sacrifice your project for the sake of building collaboration. Find small ways to invest in other people, to build trust, and create mutual wins. If someone is toxic and destructive, focus your energy with others.

It will take time.

Dan gained a great team member when he offered the illegal logger a job. His relationship with the farmer, however, didn’t turn into a collaborative success. He greets her and she nods. “But,” says Dan, “She’s not an enemy.”

Your Turn

Collaboration requires trust and investment in other’s success. Leave us a comment and share: How do you build collaborative results-focused relationships at work?

Jennifer secret to retaining high performers

One Obvious Secret to Retaining High Performers

Recently, I received an incredibly strong message about retaining high performers.

The message came from Jennifer, a former store manager at a national women’s clothing chain. Jennifer is outgoing, incredibly gifted at making customers feel comfortable, and was considered a “high-potential” by her district and regional managers. Within a year, however, she had quit.

A few months later, she ran into her district manager at a coffee shop. As they talked, the district manager expressed surprise that Jennifer had left. “You were one of the most talented, capable, managers we had. You had so much to offer and you left. Do you mind if I ask why?”

Jennifer told me, “It took me a few moments to recover from the shock … the district manager had never shared any of those positives with me. I got a weekly, sometimes daily, breakdown of where I wasn’t good enough – and that was it.”

Jennifer told her former district manager, “I thought I was failing. I’m shocked to hear that I was doing anything right. I wish you had told me I was talented or capable at the time.”

A “Secret” to Retaining High Performers

This shouldn’t be that much of a secret. Sadly, however, it’s not as common as it should be:

Tell them.

Tell them they’re doing well. Be specific about what they’re doing well and why it matters. Build on that foundation with a path forward. How can they continue to grow? What future roles are available for them and what skills will they need to master to thrive in those roles?

Unfortunately, we still run into managers who ask (with a completely straight face) “Why should I have to encourage people for just doing their job?”

That depends … how important is retaining high performers? How much lost talent, energy, and productivity will a lack of encouragement cost you?

Human beings need encouragement. It’s a fact of life. You get more of what you encourage or celebrate and less of what you criticize or ignore. If you want a team that doesn’t need to be encouraged, get a cat. Otherwise, if you’re working with people, they need encouragement.

If you want a team that doesn’t need to be encouraged, get a cat. Otherwise, if you’re working with people, they need encouragement. (Tweet This)

If you’re married, imagine what would happen if, after your wedding, you never said “I love you” or never held hands or kissed the other person. You couldn’t expect your relationship to last very long.

That’s the equivalent of never saying “thank you” or encouraging your team members. Yes, it’s their job in that they’ve made a commitment to your company – just like spouses make a promise to commit to one another. That doesn’t mean you should take that commitment or your team’s work for granted.

3 Keys to Effective Encouragement

Recently, when I shared Jennifer’s story, an audience member asked, “How do I encourage people? I understand the concept, but struggle to do it well.” Effective encouragement requires three things. Try these:

  1. Avoid saying “Great job!” Instead, try something like: “I really appreciate the extra effort you put in on that project last Tuesday. The client loved the work and renewed their account.”
  2. Encourage people in ways that are meaningful to them. The easiest way to find out, is to ask. When you onboard people into your team, ask them, “How do you like to receive recognition for a job well done?”
  3. Make sure your encouragement is related to the work and business outcomes. It demoralizes everyone when you encourage someone for something that actually detracts from the team.

Consistent encouragement doesn’t need to take hours of your time. I often work with managers to create ‘micro-encouragement’ with their team members – small moments where you are specific, meaningful, and relevant in a sentence or two. These consistent micro-encouragements add up to massive influence, productivity, and yes, retaining high performers.

Your Turn

Remember, when it comes to retaining higher performers, you get more of what you encourage and celebrate. Start with encouragement. Everyone needs it in ways that are meaningful to them. (On that note: Thank YOU for investing in your leadership. You’re making a difference for the people you work with.)

Leave us a comment and share: How you make sure to give people the encouragement they need?