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It’s one of the severest tests of any leader: faced with the persistent underperformance of someone you’ve worked with for years, you’re contemplating the unthinkable – firing a genuinely trusted, admired, maybe even loved colleague.
Letting go of a colleague with whom you have built a strong bond of trust – and with whom you have a deep shared history – is excruciating.
Even the thought of starting such a conversation with someone who has personally sacrificed much to make your business successful is enough to make most leaders nauseous.
Getting to the point where you’re faced with separating from someone you thought would be part of your business forever is easier than you might think...
Sometimes a previously high performer turns into a rogue maverick, chewing up everyone in their path and fomenting dissent in the rest of the employees; sometimes the business simply outgrows their ability to contribute.
Sometimes their need for autonomy and status precludes them from participating in high-quality team-based decision-making.
And sometimes it’s simply a blind spot that’s driving everyone else crazy.
Whatever the reason, it’s a sleep-depriving, confidence-shaking step to take – to face up to the fact that someone who has for so long been a stalwart, prominent, next-to-indispensable part of your team con no longer remain, if your business is to grow to its next stage in development.
Absent gnawing doubt about the rightness of the decision, it’s usually easier to work out the best plan of action (if no less painful to execute).
Having been in this position a number of times in my career, here are the lessons I’ve learned:
1. Don’t Get To The Point Of Being Resigned To Act.
Most leaders let a loved colleague’s underperformance continue for way too long, prompting severe irritation in others (who will believe, with some justification, that you’re playing favorites) and making the issue even harder to deal with in the end.
Don’t wait until you’ve heard so many complaints, and are so personally disappointed, that you’re finally resigned to act. Act early. Act now.
2. Be Very Clear About What The Issue Is.
Take time alone, in silence, to clearly identify the precise reason your formerly trusted colleague is now no longer contributing.
Write it down in plain English.
Is it arrogance? Technophobia? Slumped into a comfort zone? Trading on past relationships? Out-of-date skills? Tin ear to colleagues?
Be precise, be specific. List examples and detail the consequences.
If you feel you need help at this stage, consider using a 360-degree assessment tool implemented by a trusted independent third party to gather the data you need.
3. Give Help, A Probationary Period, And Expected Outcomes.
With your data in hand, have the hard discussion now, not later.
With a third party present to avoid subsequent misunderstandings, detail your concerns, provide access to resources (skills training, attitude counseling, coaching or mentoring, a paid vacation – whatever is relevant and needed).
Be very clear about what outcomes (changes) you expect, and by when. The hard part? Making clear the consequence of not achieving those outcomes.
4. Have A Third Party Help And Hold You Both Accountable To The Eventual Outcome.
Don’t trust yourself (or your on-the-bubble colleague) to make a truly objective appraisal of the eventual outcome.
Enroll the help of someone you trust to assess the results at the end of the probationary period.
Discuss it with other colleagues, including those who were complaining in the first place. Then decide.
5. Be Swift And Generous.
If at the end of this process the decision is clear that your colleague can’t deliver the changes necessary to continue being part of the team, make the separation swift but generous.
There’s nothing to be gained by having a disgruntled big dog hanging around, but you owe it to them to generously recognize their past contributions.
6. After A While, Don’t Beat Yourself Up.
It’s tough letting go of anyone, let alone someone you shared highs and lows with. Unless you’re a low-level sociopath, you’ll feel really bad about it.
After a while, however, you need to get back to stewarding the business you manage – the rest of your team will be unnerved if you’re still replaying the decision in team meetings three months later.