Sometimes You Need to Fire Someone


Most people are fine with the idea of firing someone for egregiously terrible work or when they’re discovered to be lying about their qualifications. The well-situated dictators out there are often in a position to enact their mercurial tempers and bully people around with the threat and maybe actualization of “off with their head” style firings. Back in the real world, I’ve seen leaders struggle with how to deal with team members who have problematic behavior that doesn’t align with the organization’s culture or more subtle signs that someone needs to go.


If someone is underperforming they need training, advising, coaching or mentoring. Underperformance implies the possibility of adequate performance. There are often objective metrics or standards that the underperformer isn’t reaching. In this situation, it’s on you as a leader to bring the support. Are expectations clear? Does the underperformer have the necessary knowledge, tools and resources to do the job? Is the process understood? Is the result of underperformance known? Is the underperformer aware that they’re underperforming and what they need to do to fix it? Have you (and all your teammates) really done everything you can to get the underperformer up to speed? Has there been enough time and repeated attempts to foster change in the underperformer? Yes? Cool. Give them the boot and find someone else who can do the job.


But what about those more subtle situations where the work performance is adequate but the personality has varying degrees of poor “cultural fit”? First, a word of caution: “cultural fit” has historically been used as a cover for racism, sexism, homophobia, and similar biases that have nothing to do with actual performance. So, check your “culture” first. Is what you mean by “culture” mindful of biases? Does everyone need to look, act, speak, dress and recreate like the leadership to “fit” in the culture? If the answer is “yes”, go fix your garbage culture first.


Let’s say that you have a thoughtful, intentional and positive culture and you have a teammate who is not on board with that. Maybe they have a negative attitude or maybe they deny that their problematic behavior is problematic such as: “I’m just a yeller, everyone knows and should be ok with that.” Or “I don’t filter myself and say what I mean, if it’s too harsh you’re just being a baby.” Someone recently told me they had a teammate who said they “don’t believe microaggressions exist” in response to a teammate explaining to them how their words were hurtful. PSA - if someone has the courage to advise you that your tone or word choice or empathy need a tune-up: listen to them. You’re being given an emotional intelligence gift that is precious.


But what to do about them on the team? Emotional intelligence underperformance is underperformance. You won’t have the same objective metrics but bullying behavior or complaints about tone or lacking empathy are valid data points. Educating, supporting, coaching, mentoring - you have the same tools to work with an emotional intelligence underperformer. After efforts have been exhausted and there has been no improvement and there’s no better role available for this person, then it’s time to let them go and find someone who has the emotional intelligence needed for the demands of your organization.


Don’t get caught in the “well, I didn’t do everything I possibly could” trap. You might notice as your energy and attention are flowing to the underperformer, other teammates, goals and duties are neglected. When teammates and the goals of the organization are suffering due to a poor performer this is actually primarily poor leadership. If the underperformer can’t get the job done and there is not an option to find a different role for them where their talents and abilities can be effective then it’s time for them to go. All those teammates that were being given less energy will notice. It’s not always easy to remove an underperformer but it’s worth it to maintain organizational momentum and make it clear that there are standards for performance.


Also, be ready to avoid the sunk-cost-fallacy of feeling like you’ve invested so much in this person so you might as well keep them around. Let that feeling of energy investment sit in stark contrast to the underperformer’s performance. If that much energy doesn’t result in adequate performance then take it as a sign that you need to let someone go.


To sum up - leadership is about supporting your teammates. It is your job to teach, coach and support them to be at their best. It’s your job, as a leader, to get your team on board with helping the underperforming teammate. It’s also your job to recognize when everyone’s efforts aren’t working out and to pull the plug.

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