Firing: An Uncomfortable Responsibility of Leadership

This is an excerpt from Redefining Leadership: A Practitioner's Guide.


If we think back to our example of the ideal organization, we began that thought experiment by establishing two conditions: that the group shared a vision, and that the members of the group were generally good people who wanted to accomplish the shared goal. Creating and sharing the vision is the responsibility of leadership, so we are responsible for the first condition in our own organization. The second assumption, about the internal motivation of the members of the group, requires some additional consideration.


In general, people who are provided the circumstances to be productive are willing to do so. That is, when the conditions are right, human beings want to be seen as helpful, hardworking, collaborative, engaged, and positive. These are traits that most of us agree we would like to exemplify. For most people, it is often the fault of the environment — the vision and relationships within the organization — that cause negative behaviors to supplant positive ones. When we act as leaders upon the functions, we create an environment in which members of the group can act in more productive, group-focused ways.


This belief is nearly always true. However, there are some significant exceptions, and part of our responsibility as leaders is to address them. Fortunately, we have a tool to do so: the performance management system, which may ultimately lead to a decision to separate a person from the group.

While we often feel connections to the individual members of the group, our ultimate responsibility as leaders is to the group or organization as a whole. If we build relationships that are consistent with the vision, then members of the group will be able to commit to shared success, will persevere through challenges, and will grow to reach excellence. Each member of the group chooses to do these things. While we can use “punishment” in the form of specific, legally compliant workplace incentives, we cannot — and, in truth, would not want to — force someone to perform any action.


Sometimes, however, a person chooses not to fit within the group. This may occur even though the environment — the vision and relationships of a group — provide all of the support that person needs. If a person is not willing to perform constructive, supportive behaviors when given every avenue to do so, then it is not reasonable for us to continue asking him or her to be a member of the group. If a person is not willing to develop the necessary capabilities to complete the tasks he or she is expected to perform, it is not logical of us to continue asking for a specific level of performance. Our judgment as leaders allows us to make a decision when we have reached the point where these failures are no longer because of functional factors and are now because of individual choice. Individual behavior is always a choice.


If we continue asking an individual to improve for too long, the result will be that we stop valuing the person’s contribution. Their actions will not satisfy what the vision and the other members of the group expect and need to perform their own work. Others will have to pick up the slack, and they too will be frustrated and eventually stop valuing the person. Keeping somebody in a position where they are not capable is not kindness but a disservice.


It is also damaging to our vision. When we make decisions that do not align with the vision, our team will begin to doubt that we mean what we say about the story of vision. They will begin to behave in ways that benefit them, rather than setting aside their individual desires and preferences to contribute to the group’s shared success. These small decisions add up over time until we are no longer able to sustain the vision and relationships that the organization needs to perform its work.


Lastly, when we make decisions against our vision, we are not just diminishing that person and the vision, we are also diminishing the others in the organization. If we believe that everyone has value and worth in what they contribute to the group and the vision, and then we keep on someone who we know does not, we are diminishing the value of those others’ contributions. We are, in effect, saying “I will treat you, the person who does contribute, the same as this person, who does not.” This comparison creates tension, resentment, and disengagement.


This is not to say that we should be indiscriminate or cavalier in letting people go. If we can help them become fully contributing members of the organization through training and development, and if that investment is worth our time, then we should do so. But we must not keep someone around just to “be nice” or because we feel bad for firing them. Doing so takes away from our vision, our leadership, our team, and the person. Not only is individual behavior a choice, but it affects the larger group through relationships and it impacts the members of the group who strive for excellence.


When it comes time to have the conversation where we let someone go, we have an answer within vision and relationships. We can be deliberate and firm but also compassionate because we have established the behaviors that are expected of the person and the reason that those behaviors are necessary for the group’s success. We have a standard of performance provided by the shared vision and the motivation and hard work of the other members of the group to illustrate appropriate choices. These tools remind people why they are part of the organization and the worth they bring to making the change become reality. If our decisions align with the shared vision, then they are honest and forward-looking even if they are difficult and painful. When an individual chooses to perform behaviors outside of the norm, against both leadership and the group’s attempts to bring these behaviors into alignment, then the organization gives us the authority of performance management and ultimately separation from the group. This is one of the burdens of leadership.

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