Why The Best Leaders Struggle To Fire People


David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom

October 7, 2016

There’s something about Mary…just not in a good way. Every day, she arrives at work on time to get cracking on the day’s agenda. She gets along with her coworkers and performs pretty well on assignments. She even stays late on days when she needs to do some catching up. But unfortunately, come review time, Mary’s stats are not too stellar. She gets things done—but often a little late. Or, she makes promises, but doesn’t quite follow through. The small, quirky habits that make her unproductive have compounded into some real performance problems. And ultimately, her work falls shy of being up to par. From her manager’s perspective, it’s hard to let Mary go. She’s doing her best, after all. It’s just that her best is not delivering what the team—or company—needs.

Most leaders have managed someone like Mary at some point in their careers, and struggled to figure out the best path to take to advance the team and company’s interest. Should Mary undergo some performance management? Does she have the potential for improvement? At what point is it time to just let her go? Here are the roadblocks the best leaders face when they’re struggling to fire people—and the solutions that deliver guidance for next time you’re in a bind with a Mary on your own team.

Roadblock: It’s hard to give up on potential.  

Solution: Harness potential into positive change.

There’s a reason why Mary was hired in the first place. Was it her creative problem-solving abilities? Her superior coding skills? Review what made you (or the hiring manager before you) consider Mary the best candidate for her position, and then reinvest in that potential. Thank Mary for her unique contributions, and assign her projects that harness her specific talents. Encourage her to innovate in a way only she can do. Maybe she’s underperforming because she’s not being given an opportunity to shine. As Leadership Coach Lolly Daskal shares, when you’re trying to turn around an underachieving pattern, “it should be about opportunity, not failure.” If you do your best to create new opportunities but nothing changes, then it might be time to consider letting the underachiever go, so the team can find someone who truly fits and thrives in your culture.

Roadblock: The team is watching.  

Solution: Invest in long-term team success.

In tight-knit teams, the group is always in the know. So when it comes time for stricter performance management, it’s hard not to feel like you might be alienating the team by singling out one person for guidance and extra support. Do your utmost to keep your plans confidential—between you and Mary is best. But if a performance plan is in place, and nothing improves, it may be time to let her go. If you do so, that’s the time for a candid and respectful conversation with the team. Let them know that it was a difficult decision and you didn’t take it lightly, but the team needs someone who brings their A game to deliver a difference day in and day out. And then, engage the team in the hiring process for finding Mary’s replacement. Ask for their opinions, and really utilize their feedback. You may just be pleasantly surprised when the end result builds more respect and solidarity—not less.

Roadblock: It’s hard to admit it might be your fault.  

Solution: See your responsibility as a chance for improvement.

And what’s secretly the biggest fear of fantastic leaders who struggle to fire people? They’re worried that they may not have done enough to help reverse someone’s underperformance. For some reason in their leadership journey, delivering an awesome, inspirational team vision has ended up on the back burner. If that’s what you’re worried about, now’s the time to change some habits. Start by making communication and appreciation your biggest priorities. Be there for the team. Start seriously respecting your open-door policy. Focus on talking to your under-performer and being there for them—both for work problems, and possible other distractions or concerns. Appreciate what they do for the team, and their motivation will soar. Help them discover what they’re good at, and they may just surprise you with their innovative contributions. If you work on being the best leader you can be, a lot can change—but sometimes, people just aren’t in the right role. And if that’s the case, you can let them go, knowing that you’ve done what you can, and you may even be doing them a favor by letting them find a better fit elsewhere.

It’s hard to fire a chronic under-performer. But the most important thing you can do is overcome your hesitations and fears in addressing the situation. Great leaders have the most difficulty giving up on potential or talent, because truly great leaders understand that it’s their job to recognize and influence greatness in others.


This article was written by David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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