A conversation over dinner with a good friend of mine opened my eyes to one of the most common challenges bosses face in order to keep operations going smoothly. And I have even experienced it myself when I was an operational leader.
It is the dilemma of letting go of an underperformer during busy times without having a significant disruption in operations. Without a doubt, one of the most difficult decisions a boss ever has to make.
Leaders ask themselves if more training could be the answer. They wonder if their leadership isn’t inspiring enough to motivate people. And sometimes they just believe the person doesn’t have a strong internal motivation, and that there’s little they can do about it.
First things first
The first option is to keep an ongoing and honest two-way dialogue with the person to help him/her with the resources and training they need to succeed. And make sure you are always very clear with your expectations and that the person understands them well.
But what if with all of that your people still do not demonstrate the behaviors or skills to succeed as a member of your team? Is it time to think seriously about letting them go?
Letting people go usually represents a lot of extra work and time for the leader. From interviewing people to training them, and absorbing a lot of transitioning responsibilities. I have heard several leaders tell me they just need to go through their work peaks with whatever they have at that moment.
“We can’t afford to be short-staffed in our busiest time of the year” is what I hear most often. So they make a decision for their team and themselves to just suck it up.
But keeping under-performing employees can cause significant delays, quality issues, mistakes and frequent “fires” that the boss must unexpectedly put out. Managers tell me their day-to-day becomes “stressful and unpredictable”.
One bad apple
Managers never know what fire they’ll have to put down that day. And they start getting through their responsibilities after working hours. And sometimes their top performers must pick up the slack.
In the end, someone reliable has to deliver the work. As the leader of the team, you end up having very difficult conversations with your stakeholders trying to rebuild the trust they lost after an important mistake was made by your less attentive employees.
When I went through that myself, I remember it took so much time and energy that I started questioning the balance of the time I was spending fixing mistakes versus the time hiring and training a new person.
On the other hand, leaders are concerned that letting a well liked team member go will have a negative impact on how staff perceives their leadership. But this couldn’t be further from reality.
Letting go of low performers, regardless of how well liked they are, makes you a more credible leader.
Over my more than 10 years of consulting experience, one of the most impactful changes made by leaders that improves employees' experience, is letting go of team members who drag performance. When a few people are dragging the team, other team members end up accommodating for what’s lacking.
Popularity won’t help
In all the conversations I’ve had with employees from different industries, I have learned that when an employee is popular among their colleagues, it doesn’t change how people feel about the situation. People will still feel it is unfair.
Leaders have an opportunity to create a fairer environment where everybody is expected to perform and contribute at the same level. Making these difficult decisions could feel like taking a big risk on trust, but it’s the opposite.
Nothing builds trust more than making difficult and fair decisions.
The best advice I can give to all bosses out there facing this dilemma is a phrase I recently learnt from a For All leader of a Great Place To Work-Certified™ company: “It’s never the wrong time to create the right team”.
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