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If you asked me what my clients talk about more than any other topic it is agonizing over a key player not performing up to expectations. While the leader tosses and turns over what to do the staff is looking at the situation and concluding one of the following:

  • What is the leader waiting for? This person is a total disaster! What is the question?
  • This person may not be measuring up but s/he has been here forever and has so much institutional knowledge. We should just find another non-managerial role for him. It would just be heartless to let him go.
  • The leader has no idea how poorly this reflects on her own reputation. It’s become a company joke.

What is not visible to the wider organization is what is actually happening behind the scenes. It’s so easy to point from afar and say “get rid of the jerk”. Not surprising, it is those same finger pointers who exhibit the same hesitant behavior when they are in the same situation!

So let’s pull back the curtain and uncover what is happening in reality.

First of all, most leaders feel a personal responsibility to help their people succeed. This means they have to invest the time and effort to provide guidance, correction, feedback and consistent coaching. In reality, do those things happen as they should? Only to a degree. They do have the tough conversations, set clear expectations and conduct follow ups. But taking the time it ultimately requires is difficult. And somewhere in the midst of this period of redirection many leaders get very frustrated. “Why isn’t Sam stepping up? Why do I feel like I’m the only one who is always pushing for better results? Doesn’t Joslyn understand that her job is on the line?”

So there is a dynamic in motion that has many fits and starts. There is the initial “come to Jesus” talk when both sides agree there is a problem and make commitments to work a plan for success. All good. But one of two things happen next. Best case scenario, the employee sees the light and works like crazy to turn things around. Usually this works out to everyone’s satisfaction. But more frequently the momentum peters out quickly and the employee does not attack the issues, the boss pulls back on the time investment and things are back to the status quo. The boss gets pissed off and the employee is deluded into thinking that nothing bad will happen to him. This is the part in the play when the staff is going nuts over the lack of action.

Some leaders decide they need to re-engage because of that sense of responsibility. Other leaders just wring their hands while HR pushes them to do something…anything. This phase can go on for a very long time…months and months. At some point the leader takes a stand because of pressures from others. Either she decides to provide resources to help this person succeed or finally makes a decision to let the person go. More times than not, it is the former.

A second aspect to this dilemma is a legal one. I’m sure you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most of these situations go undocumented. In fact, there are years worth of positively glowing performance reviews with no notes of areas for significant improvement or strongly worded feedback. So another thing that makes this a drawn out process is initiating what should have been happening all along…meetings, notes, action plans, assessments etc. that are all written up and put in the employee file. This takes 3-6 months…more time for the staff to be in an uproar. But corporate lawyers are very disciplined about keeping the company out of wrongful termination lawsuits…and that’s a good thing.

The third thread to this situation is more private. Anything (and more) on this list can complicate things in ways that do not have easy fixes. The person may be suffering from a major illness or the board has pressured the leader to retain the person or the CEO is long term friends with him or there are unusual personal circumstances that only the CEO and HR know about or the boss has an aversion to firing people/has a notion he can save this person. This is information rarely known by many but these circumstances can have a huge impact on what actions are/are not taken. And again…another reason to get the staff to bitch and moan.

So, when is it time to stop the madness and decide to let someone go? Here’s my usual litmus test questions.

  1. Regardless of your history with this person, if this position was open today would you rehire her for this role? I’m rarely surprised by how fast a leader blurts out “absolutely not!” Enough said.
  2. In any given week how many hours do you spend addressing this problem…meetings, thoughts, problem solving, discussions etc? If it is more than 2 hours then something has gone off the rails. If this person is taking up an inordinate amount of your attention AND you are not getting the results you are looking for then you are working harder on this than she is. Is there small progress only when you are pushing and then the person reverts to old habits? Red flashing warning lights.
  3. What is your assessment (gut check) of whether or not this person can meet your expectations? Again, at best I hear leaders give a barely passing grade. It comes down to the history of disappointing performance and the lack of motivation from this person to fix it.
  4. Even if this person could pull it together, is she damaged goods? Will others come to trust her new performance standards? Is the legacy of under performance too engrained for people to give her another chance? Sometimes it just isn’t possible to redeem someone’s reputation.
  5. Are you able to separate out what is your responsibility and what needs to be taken up by the employee? Frequently these problems drag on because the leader simply can’t acknowledge defeat. On the one hand it is admirable to hang in there supporting potential success. But the employee has to make MORE effort than you do. She has to embrace the challenge as hers. That is the only path to success. It will never be YOUR success.

The silver lining in this chronic dilemma is that it underscores how human most leaders are. They really do care about their people succeeding. They do have compassion for a person’s circumstances. They do feel a responsibility to help.

But here is the moral of the story. If you ever get called into your boss’s office and get The Talk the only rational response is “Let’s create a very specific plan and I will do my very best to exceed your expectations. This is mine to solve.” In the end this is more about how vigorously the employee reacts to improving performance than how well the boss coaches the person. Both are important but the employee holds all the cards for success. And in the end, if you assess the employee’s motivation this should tell you everything you need to know about the chances for success.

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