Fire a poor performer

How to Be Okay When It’s Time to Fire a Poor Performer

It takes compassion and strength to fire a poor performer.

Have you ever been reluctant to fire a poor performer? You might identify with Mary.

She approached David as he finished delivering a leadership development program and introduced herself. “I was the vice president of a well-known technology company, and I consistently did everything you just talked about—with one exception. I let people stay who weren’t right for the team.”

David replied, “You’re not alone. That’s a difficult challenge for most managers.”

Mary frowned. “Yes, it is. It’s also why I said ‘I was the vice president.’ I lost my job because I didn’t practice adequate accountability. Please make sure people know how important this is. Tell them Mary said so.”

Well, Mary—this is for you.

Firing someone is one of the most difficult things most managers ever have to do. Even so, the decision to fire a poor performer is an important aspect of your leadership. Removing poor performers tells your top performers you value their time and effort.

When you remove troublesome individuals, you help everyone be more productive—especially you. In our experience, a troublesome poor performer can soak up 80 percent of your time when you don’t take proper care of the situation.

So yes, there will come a time when you need to fire a poor performer.

Now, it may feel easy to fire someone you’ve never cared for, who treated you and everyone else rudely and abused customers, but what about when you like the person? You’ve grown close over the years. You care about her. You might even know her family. Perhaps she’s even a strong performer who did something stupid. Now you need to fire her. How do you get okay with that?

How to Be Okay When It’s Time to Fire a Poor Performer

It’s okay for these decisions to be tough. This isn’t a bad thing—you should take it seriously. Dick Saunders, the Founder and CEO of Saunders Construction once told us in an interview, “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.”

You might feel like you don’t want to hurt the person or his family. If you’re a Pleaser Manager, you want people to like you. Even Users can procrastinate on these decisions. To move past this paralysis, you’ll need to change your mindset.

When you manage, there will come a time when you realize a person is no longer committed to the mission and is not, or never was, a good fit for the organization. In these situations, you want to be sure you’ve made reasonable efforts to help her (reinforce expectations, alert her to the issue, provide any needed training, and practice your company’s due process if it has one).

If you’ve done this and it’s clear that the person needs to move on, the most important thing you can do for your team, for your own credibility, and for the employee is to help her go.

Don’t do it because other people think you should, don’t do it because you’re angry, and don’t do it to avoid other problems. When you terminate, do it because it is best for the team, the organization, and that employee.

Not Everyone Belongs Here

One mindset to embrace before you can help your people achieve results together is that not everyone should be a part of every team.

The human being in front of you has strengths and value—strengths and value that just don’t work for his current position.

Karin worked with an HR manager who had lots of big ideas but constantly suffered in execution. After a year of reviewing expectations, performance-improvement planning, training, and straight talk, she had to let him go. A year later he called her and said:

“Thank you. Getting fired was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I’m working on my Ph.D., teaching, and consulting. In hindsight, I should have quit, but I was too scared about what to do next. This forced me into needed action.”

If you need to fire someone, it doesn’t really matter if she did something wrong or isn’t an ideal fit. We’re talking about a mindset you bring to the process: This isn’t about them as a person – it’s facing the reality that not everyone should be a part of every team.

When You Fire a Poor Performer, You Serve Them Too

One of the most important pieces of the decision to fire a poor performer is your awareness that you serve the person you let go.

This is a vital part of knowing how to say goodbye: realizing that you don’t do an employee any favors by tolerating poor performance, mission misalignment, or abuse of coworkers.

When you refuse to help someone move on, you actually hurt them.

With mission misalignment, if you don’t say goodbye, you keep the person from learning more about his strengths. When you tolerate negligence or abuse, you enable poor behavior and prevent the individual from learning how to succeed in the real world.

In either case, while it’s not pleasant, it can definitely be an act of caring if your motivations include both what is best for the individual and on what is best for the organization.

Your Turn

Don’t allow your lack of courage or your discomfort to hurt your poor performers and your good ones. Great managers know when and how to say goodbye because they recognize that in doing so, they express how much they value their team, for the mission, and even for the departing staff member.

We’d love to hear from you: leave a comment and share your experience – either the consequences of a poor performer who stayed too long or a leader skilled at moving people out of poorly matched roles.

For more, check out this video from Karin on what happens when you leave a toxic manager in their role:

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find the fire book Leadership Relationships Scott Mautz

Want a Tighter-Knit Team? Look to the Family For Inspiration

It’s our pleasure today to bring you a guest post from Scott Mautz, author of Find the Fire: Reignite Your Inspiration and Make Work Exciting Again. -Karin & David


Believe it or not, we’re actually now spending more time with coworkers than family; this is true of almost 80% of people who work thirty to fifty hours a week. So it’s probably not surprising that research indicates we’re increasingly viewing our coworkers as direct extensions of our family. Group dynamic researchers say the parallel should make intuitive sense considering that the first organization people ever belong to is their families, with parents the first bosses and siblings the first colleagues. “Our original notions of an institution, of an authority structure, of power and influence are all forged in the family,” says Warren Bennis, the late management guru.

So since we’re there already, why not take a closer look at the best (and worst) of family dynamics to create through-the-roof camaraderie?

It’s worth the pursuit. Studies show that top-rated places to work share a sense of camaraderie as a key ingredient in their success formula. And the “add-on” effects of camaraderie in the workplace are astounding; nearly 40 percent of survey respondents named their coworkers as the top reason they love working for their company, 66 percent said those positive relationships increased their productivity, and 55 percent said they helped mitigate their on-the-job stress levels.

Now, if you stop and think about the attributes of a happy family, you’ll soon realize the number of traits that would be applicable for creation of a close-knit group in the workplace. And while each unhappy corporate family is unhappy in its own way, happy corporate families are all alike. They:

  • Make heartfelt connections with one another, showing warmth and an interest to connect
  • Openly and honestly communicate (even over-communicate) with one another
  • Have a sense of watching one another’s back, and that “we’re all in this together”
  • Are fiercely committed to each other and put each other first
  • Share goals and values, uphold family codes
  • Enjoy each other
  • Have compassion and move towards rather than away from one another in crisis
  • Help each other grow and support each other

The idea is to keep the nuclear family metaphor front and center and to strive to embed family values into your own workplace culture. But as you do so, it’s important to be mindful of darker family theatrics that all too often play out at work. Research in workplace dynamics indeed confirms that people tend to recreate their own family dramas at the office. Do any of these situations seem familiar?

  • Over the top or desperate plays for approval from bosses
  • Backstabbing of and bickering with scene-stealing co-workers
  • Bickering in meetings like at the family dinner table
  • Shying away from authority figures
  • Harboring petty jealousies towards co-workers
  • Hypercritical judgment of subordinates or co-workers

The key is to bring all the best of a caring, family mindset to an organizational culture while leaving behind all the subconsciously engrained worst aspects. A failure to at least do the latter can lead to a substantive productivity drain. A two-year study by Seattle psychologist Brian DesRoches found that “family conflict” type dramas routinely waste 20 to 50 percent of workers’ time.

How might your behaviors change if you acted as if your co-workers were actually family? Would you exhibit the powerful “happy family” behaviors previously listed?

It’s a filter that can drastically change your day to day interactions with others and maximize meaning derived from your relationships in the process.

Self-Directed Meets Connected: Gentle When Needed

Leadership challenges us to anticipate what is happening in the hearts and minds of our people. This is particularly difficult when working with strong, self-directed human beings. Strong performers are self-critical by nature and when the going gets tough, the tough get going usually starting with beating up on themselves. Leaders can help by staying connected, and offering compassion.

I experienced this first hand, when I was the one struggling. I was the leader of a large retail sales team, and it was one of those big days with high expectations. I had started at 4am and was driving from store to store to rally and inspire the team. Each hour, the sales totals would flash on my phone via text message. They were disappointing. I felt more stressed with each incoming tone. And then the phone rang. It was my boss. “Oh great,” I thought. “He is freaking out too.”

“Where are you?” He said.

“I’ve been to 8 stores, headed South for more. Everyone is working really hard ” I wanted him to know I was “on it.”

“Please pull over now,” he said firmly.

And then continued, “Stop it.”

“Stop what?” Not the response I had expected.

“Look in the mirror. See that look on your face? Stop beating yourself up. I know that you planned well, the team is prepared, everyone is fully customer-focused, and you are executing on all cylinders, Aren’t you?”

Uhhh, “yes,” I said, still surprised by his reaction.

“The only mistake I see happening is the one you are about to make when you go into that next store. No matter what you say to the team, they are going to see that look of disappointment on your face. It is going to crush them because they care about pleasing you.

Powerful coaching. He was absolutely right He knew me. He knew my team That is exactly what was about to happen.

That was the best coaching he ever gave me.

I experienced this from the other side of the coaching fence as well. I was talking to a seasoned member of my HR team. She was really upset at how a project had turned. Then she sighed, “and on top of that I am being yelled at.”

I was startled. I had been making every effort to stay calm and offer support (even though I was really frustrated).

“I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to yell at you, I know this was an honest oversight.”

“Oh, it’s not YOU who is yelling at me, it’s ME yelling at ME, and that’s far worse.”

Indeed.

Sometimes the best we can give our teams is empathetic connection.