The caricature of executives depicts them as heartless; people who fire others without a second thought. The reality is a far cry from this. Especially with unemployment at historic lows, leaders are acutely aware that talented people who are a good fit are not only uncommon, they are probably employed. For this, and other reasons, people who aren’t working out tend to be left in place too long.

Nearly 100% of the time, a client will say to me, “I wish I had let that person go a year ago”. Never, ever has someone said they should have waited longer. Not once.

How does this happen? My top two are below:

Ignoring Alarming Clues    

Despite evidence, leaders often complicate the situation because they feel responsible. A leader may frame the issue as their own failure and burden themselves, and the organization, with more responsibility than is properly theirs. The hard part of this dynamic is that we don’t realize it. Emotionally, it feels more admirable to take responsibility, and when we are afraid that we’ve made a mistake, it can show up as an exaggerated sense of responsibility.

This can be confounding, making it harder to see what is actually happening. What is actually happening? Protection. We all have a need to guard against feeling foolish. This affects our perceptions, thinking, and decision-making and happens without us knowing that it is occurring. Vehement denials are not evidence that someone is completely clear-eyed.

Why would a smart leader allow this? For the same reason anyone does. We prefer to be right and we tend to look for evidence that we are while ignoring information that tells us we are mistaken.

Postponing Pain     

A Chief Operating Officer complained to me, almost offhandedly, about a Vice-President. Andrew was a high-flyer who had the exact expertise the COO wanted. It’s a familiar story, a smart person with a great resume joins an organization and immediately starts breaking glass. Four years later, the COO suggested to the head of another business unit that Andrew would be a perfect fit for another role.

The credibility of leaders has as much to do with how they handle poor performers as how well they help others grow and thrive. Click To Tweet

In a medical setting, this is called “buffing and turfing”. Patients who are annoying are referred to another department. Psychiatry, Psychology or Behavioral Medicine are popular destinations. In my experience, most physicians, and most managers, don’t intend harm, but they do become exhausted. When that happens the goal changes from get this person to the right place to “get this person away from me.”

In business, the same thing happens.

I have never heard anyone admit to lying about someone so a colleague will take them off their hands. This is, in part, because it’s so hard to admit, especially to ourselves. The same process that leads us to ignore cues and postpone pain can blind us to the challenge we are asking someone else to deal with.

Learn to say, “This isn’t going to work.”

It is difficult to remove someone whom you are genuinely fond of. I’ve seen people who had not been successful in a role for years stay because their manager feels an obligation to them and indeed, affection for them. (I’m not talking about inappropriate relationships here, that’s another topic.)

The credibility of leaders has as much to do with how they handle poor performers as how well they help others grow and thrive. Others know what is happening and don’t think well of leaders who keep people on as though in a modern day feudal system. Further, the person being “kept” has little energy to channel toward achievement and is, therefore, unlikely and less able to change direction.

Courage Prevents Crisis

A rare ingredient in getting the best people in your organization is courage. Fondness for another is not a reason to coddle them. In fact, it’s a reason not to. It is inevitable that a challenging circumstance will arise, bringing things to a head. These situations can feel like crises, even though they are a long time in coming. Finally, adrenaline becomes the catalyst for action. Unfortunately, adrenaline has no brain.

In the age of very low unemployment, great people aren’t sitting on the bench, but that is no excuse to have people who can’t or won’t (there’s not much difference) perform on your team. Here are the three things you should do:

  1. Using a few, brief, criteria, rate your people A, B, C – you shouldn’t have anyone who is a D or F. If you do, you probably are in crisis.
  2. Make sure the A players know they are. Help the B players improve and tell the C players what is at stake. Candor is your friend here because it will help them be candid with you in return.
  3. Poach. Ask yourself, of the C players, which position is most critical and where can I find someone to join us? Get your binoculars out and go forth!

What success have you had as a result of putting energy into strategic firing? Write me and share that story.

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