Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sorry, Real Leaders Do Fire People

Liz Ryan's blog post, "Real Leaders Don't Fire People" got a lot of play on Twitter when it was published. Always on the lookout for leading edge thought on leadership and HR, I read the post and admittedly was turned off by the message. However, I did think there were some important points in the post, so I tweeted it myself.

Sometimes, the fact that we are uncomfortable with a point of view doesn't mean it isn't correct. So when I agree with some points but am still turned off by the message, I have to think about it for a little while. If I agree with the subpoints, what is wrong with the overall message? The bottom line is I believe absolutely that real leaders do (and should) fire people. Less often perhaps. With more thought usually. But not every person fits your job requirements or your organization.

I agree with Ryan on the following points:

  - Most of us work hard to hire the right person. The fact that we may decide later we were mistaken doesn't necessarily mean were are poor leaders taking the easy way out. It means our hiring process is flawed. Unfortunately, being humans trying to evaluate complicated humans without all necessary information, no hiring process is going to be perfect. But if you hire too many people you later let go because you hired the wrong person, you need to figure out the problem.

  - Sometimes managers do fire to avoid the heavy lifting required to develop their people. We think we are going to find the perfect person. They will come in knowing everything we want them to know and with all of the skills needed. We will just point them to their work area and tell them, "go forth and conquer." And they do. Well, that's a pipe dream. If you have managers who take the easy way out, look at your leadership development process. It's likely your managers are learning from you. So put real effort into developing the leadership skills of your team. If your managers cannot learn to develop people (and some won't), they can't stay in a leadership position. If  you have a non-leadership role they can effectively fill, fine. If not, move them out.

  - Employees who complain are not always troublemakers. Listen to complaints. You'll learn something. However, you know and I know there are employees who seem to stay up nights thinking of things to complain about. Those few people need to go before they infect the entire organization.

In large organizations with lots of positions, perhaps Ryan's point that we can find a place for people who are not working out in their current job has some merit. We've all probably modified positions to capitalize on employee strengths and in some cases to minimize their weaknesses. But what is possible in a large organization is much harder to do when you are a small organization of 3 or 4 or perhaps 20 people--which is the majority of our businesses. A small organization cannot afford to carry a person who is not right for the job and/or the organization.

There are some things you cannot tolerate in an organization:

  - A lack of integrity/ethics. There is no good reason to tolerate this. Ever.

  - Negativity. As noted above, just because a person complains doesn't make them a bad employee. There may well be an issue that needs to be fixed. But some people whine constantly. For some people a glass half empty would be a more positive view than they have on their best day. They will depress the performance of the entire team.

  - Bullying or other violent behavior. Fear, intimidation and violence have no place in the workplace. I include in here people who engage in discriminatory behavior. In cases of ignorance, you might be able to change this behavior. But if they know better, but the behavior doesn't change, act fast.

If you are not happy with a person's performance, it is quite possible they are unhappy working in your organization. If you rule out your own leadership shortcomings and you have listened to the complaints and cannot or don't want to make the changes necessary to resolve the issues, then it's time to move on. You'll be happier, the employee will be happier and so will their co-workers. Don't suffer needlessly. Examine your motivations and if firing is the best thing for your organization and the team, then do it. You can and must treat the departing employee with respect and courtesy, but continuing a poor working relationship is not respect; it's patronizing. I don't fire a lot of people, but believe it or not, I have had some former employees come back and thank me for letting them go. It allowed them to find a job they liked better.

Real leadership is blending the strengths and talents of the team to build a high-performing unit to obtain your organization's objectives. Not everyone is going to be the right fit. If not, it's not all bad to recognize that and sever the relationship.

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