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.