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.

5 Top Leadership Articles Week of October 23 2017

5 Top Leadership Articles for the week of October 23, 2017

Each week I read leadership articles from various online resources and share them across social media. Here are the five leadership articles readers found most valuable last week. Click on the title of the article to read the full text. I have added my comment about each article and would like to hear what you think, too.

Why Make Managers a Strategic Priority? By Larry Sternberg & Kim Turnage

What would your organization be like if every employee had a great manager? What would happen to productivity, quality, morale and customer satisfaction? In every organization, managers are a key leverage point to drive higher performance and better business results. Managers maintain service and quality standards and ensure adherence to company policies and regulatory requirements. They also drive engagement and retention of employees.

Managers influence at least 75 percent of the reasons people give for voluntary job turnover, and they account for 70 percent of variance in employee engagement. The impact managers have on turnover and engagement go straight to the organization’s bottom line. Turnover costs range from 48 to 61 percent of an employee’s annual salary, and disengaged employees cost organizations $3,400 for every $10,000 in salary.

It’s difficult to overstate the impact a great manager can have on organizational performance.

My Comment: You would never trust your customers to an untrained frontline employee. And yet, if your business is like most, your managers get little or no training before being entrusted with your most valuable resource: your people.

If you want to improve your employee engagement, your productivity, and your culture, invest in your managers, team leaders, and supervisors. Understand that just being good at their work doesn’t mean they know or are qualified to lead people. Give them the practical tools they need to succeed. Wondering where to start? That’s why we wrote Winning Well, to give managers the practical tools they need to succeed.

The 5 Things Mediocre Managers Forget (But Inspirational Leaders Never Do) by Chad Perry

Most of my career has been in leadership roles — and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I mean, a lot of mistakes. More than I can count.

I’ve learned about leadership the hard way. I’ve learned the most about leading by doing it the wrong way.

I can still remember when I first hit the management track. My very first thought? “Finally, I don’t have to be ‘on’ all day!”

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

So with that in mind, here are some things I once forgot, and I’m sure others have too at some point in their careers.

My Comment: This is a fun list and full of real life issues that managers do indeed forget. I love the first item on the list: “They forget what it’s like to follow.” Can you remember what it was like to never be encouraged and only be criticized? Or to never understand why you were doing what you were doing? Or to work hard while you colleague slacked off? The more you can remember, the more empathy you will have, and the better job you will do cultivating an environment that releases your team’s energy and motivation.

From Career Mobility to Opportunity Mobility by Julie Winkle Guilioni on SmartBrief

Career mobility is defined as the movement of employees across levels, positions and even industries. In the past, it was a yardstick by which people measured their progress and success. And it was also a tool for incenting employees and calibrating the value of their contributions to the organization.

Today, however, rather than being a helpful feature within the talent management landscape, issues related to career mobility frequently immobilize organizations and undermine optimal engagement and results. Nearly three out of four Americans report being less than satisfied with the career development they receive.

Much of the disappointment boils down to a common complaint: “I’m stuck – ready for something new – but without a promotion or other move available to me.”

My Comment: This is an important topic. It’s not just that promotion opportunities might be unavailable. In many cases, the employee might not want or be ready for leadership responsibilities. And yet, a sense of growth is one of the greatest contributions to engaged, energized employees. Guilioni gives us a useful frame to view solutions: think of opportunities that allow people to stretch, acquire new skills, and accomplish something new. How can you help them to expand their capacity and effectiveness?

10 Ways to Cut Workplace Drama and Make Work Fun Again by Martin Zwiling at Inc.com

Is it just me in my role as business advisor, or is emotional drama in the workplace increasing? Team members seem to be spending more and more time venting to anyone who will listen about the motives and actions of others, and less time introspectively focused on their own productivity and accountability.

The result is less real engagement and more negativity for all to endure.

My Comment: Today we boarded an airplane on our way to share one of our most popular programs: Mastering the

Leaders ditch the diaper drama

Art of the Tough Conversation. We carried our Winning Well Diaper Genie™ with us and the flight attendant asked us to explain our unusual carry-on.

As we explained how to “ditch the diaper drama” and have the conversations you need to have, she smiled.

“Yes! The crew and I were just talking about this…too many people have a problem with someone and instead of talking with them, they run to management and complain. That’s nuts. We fly together for several days at a time. I don’t want to let the issue fester. Let’s talk about it and resolve it.”

Great advice – and Zwiling gives you ten ways to do this and avoid unnecessary drama in your work life.

Would You Hire You? by Dan Rockwell

If we aren’t careful, as time passes, leaders expect more from others and less from themselves.

Would you hire you, if you interviewed yourself?

You expect the people you interview to answer important questions with concise clarity. Maybe it’s time to hold yourself to the same standard.

My Comment: The title says it all. Take a look at the self-interview questions Rockwell recommends. How would you fare?

Your Turn

What thoughts do these articles bring to mind? Do you see something differently than the author? Did you have a favorite leadership article this week? Leave us a comment and let’s hear from you.