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 10-30-2017

5 Top Leadership Articles for the Week of October 30, 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.

4 Questions in 4 Days that Strengthen Teams and Elevate Performance by Dan Rockwell

Imagine little Freddy throwing a tantrum in the grocery story. Freddy’s mommy or daddy give him the candy bar he’s screaming for. What happens next time little Freddy goes to the grocery store?

You get what you honor. Freddy learns the value of throwing tantrums.

Celebrations, rewards, and honor tell people what matters

My Comment: This is the first in a series of four questions Rockwell asks. The question in this article is an important one: What small wins might you celebrate today? Celebration doesn’t require confetti every time. Micro-encouragement done specifically, quickly, and with intention is incredibly powerful in reinforcing behaviors. Remember: you get more of what you celebrate and encourage, less of what you criticize or ignore. What can you celebrate today?

Building a Collaborative Culture in Non-traditional Work Environments by Rachael Powell

Since its inception, the open-plan office has drawn its fair share of criticism. While initially conceived as a means to facilitate collaboration, some argue that the office layout style does nothing but cause distraction and dissatisfaction. Indeed, it’s fair to question whether there is such a thing as too much cross-pollination of ideas when employees are elbow-to-elbow.

But when it comes to your people, one size does not fit all. In answer to the loss of concentration many attribute to a noisy workplace, activity-based workplace design is growing in popularity among companies new and old. Organizations are establishing a variety of spaces to cater to a range of tasks, including nap pods, treadmill desks and even treehouse conference spaces. It’s possible to foster both productivity and collaboration in today’s non-traditional working environments.

My Comment: I’ve never seen a treehouse conference space, but it sounds like fun. I love the point that Powell is making: give your team what they need in order to be their best. That might be an open plan, it might be something creative, it might be energetic and full of ‘buzz’ or it might be quiet and focused. The mistake I see many leaders make is that they give their teams one of two things that don’t serve them. Either they create the environment that they personally prefer (in the erroneous belief that everyone is like them) or they follow the latest fad and copy what someone else is doing. Don’t try to be like ‘them’ – be the best version of who you and your team are.

The Hidden Barrier to Your Team’s Productivity by Jennifer V. Miller at SmartBrief

As a leader, you know that productive employees bring value to your team.

Recent findings from a white paper by consulting and training firm VitalSmarts highlight the magnitude of high performers’ productivity: they are 21 times less likely to experience tasks or responsibilities that “fall through the cracks.”

Moreover, the research found that these same employees were also 18 times less likely to feel overwhelmed than their less-productive peers. Somehow, these hard-working, productive employees have found a way to deliver results without sacrificing their mental health.

What’s their secret?

My Comment: The gist of Miller’s article is that high-performing employees are good at managing their time and they are good at navigating conversations with their colleagues. At a personal level, they have mastered achieving results and building relationships. If you want a more productive team, model the combined focus on results and relationships, train them in how to do it, and then celebrate their success and hold them accountable when it doesn’t go as well.

The Challenge of Frustration by Steve Keating

Recently I had the opportunity to discuss leadership with a group of mid-level managers. At the end of my presentation, I was approached by a significant number of the attendees who all had the same question.

The questions, while asked differently all had the same theme: What do I do when my “leader” isn’t a real leader at all?

The answer to that question is simple and complicated all at once. I’m assuming (I know that’s dangerous) that the people asking the question are truly leaders. That means they care about the people they lead, they understand that their own success is completely dependent upon the success of the people they lead and that they get as much pleasure from their people’s success as they do their own.

If that is the case then the answer to the question is this: Lead Up.

My Comment: We are big believers in leading in 360 degrees – being a positive influence, building relationships, and achieving transformational results with everyone you work with. However, there are also differences leading your team vs “leading up.” One of the most common frustrations we encounter here is with supervisors who don’t follow through with their commitments and potentially prevent you from completing your work in the process.

With a direct report, you would have an INSPIRE conversation where you notice the behavior, ask them what is happening, and invite them to a solution. When having an INSPIRE conversation with someone you report to, make sure, as Keating suggests, that you’ve built a relationship where the other person can trust you and your motivations.

From there, you can still notice the behavior (eg “I noticed that you haven’t given me the data yet.”) From there, you’ll want to supply consequences. (eg: “As we discussed, I will be happy to get you what you need and it will take me three hours from when I have the data.”) You might also note other commitments you have (“I’ve promised finance that I will have their information to them by 5 tonight, so I can start on this first thing.”) That helps them understand the consequences of their actions, but in a ‘can do’ way.

Employee Engagement is the Essence of a Human Workforce by Diana Coker

The definition of workforce efficiency is very subjective in nature. This is because employees may be putting in long hours at work but there are times when this isn’t enough. With artificial intelligence taking over our lives, the sole reason why human workforce is still given importance is due to its individualistic intellect. You might think that your employee is working dedicatedly but it may so happen that the individual is doing it in a mechanical manner. If this is the case, then why hire humans when robots ensure absolutely reliable results? This makes it important for the company to encourage the practice of employee engagement.

My Comment: If you’re not going to cultivate an engaged workforce, why hire human beings in the first place? It’s a provocative question. I’m sure there are some managers out there who would prefer the robots. That frustration is a stop on the path to losing your leadership soul. People are messy and can be frustrating, but guess what – you’re a human being too. Cultivate an environment that helps people release their creativity, energy, and strength toward your mission, product, or service.

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.

Leadership Traits That Clearly Inspire Confidence

You’ve got good people on the team, but they lack confidence. Which leadership traits should you rely on?

You’ve worked hard to build a strong repetoire of leadership skills. How do you know which ones to use in this situation? How can you best build up their confidence? Take the softer approach. Meet them where they are. Listen well, and become a subtle inspiration. They need to know that THEY can do this not that YOU “did” something to them.

“A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader, a great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves”
~Eleanor Roosevelt

Clear leadership grows confident leaders.

 5 CLEAR Leadership Traits That Inspire Confidence

C- Celebrating

Pay attention to small improvements. Celebrate milestone successes. Focus on the behaviors causing the wins. To build confidence, celebrate small improvements

L- Listening

You may be tempted to talk. to encourage. Resist the urge. Try listening. Then listen more. To build confidence, listen from your heart

E- Empowering

Give them clear parameters in which to make decisions. Encourage them to try creative approaches. Provide resources over direction. To build confidence, let them go

A- Asking

Great questions make people think. Nothing inspires confidence like discovering your own answers. To build confidence, ask provocative questions

R- Risk Taking

Don’t freak out when things go wrong. Encourage weird ideas. Prepare them to present to powerful audiences. To build confidence, allow graceful failures

Useful Resources on Leadership Traits

Something Better Than I Think I Can, Post by Dan Rockwell