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Let me know if this scenario sounds familiar.
You’ve hired someone, ramped them, and set them loose. While the world begins in balance, at some point, you recognize a gap. Performance and expectations are at odds. You provide some feedback. Offer assistance. But the gap still remains, or worse, it widens. And your tolerance of the gap grows thin.
You know the problem needs to be addressed. But even discussing the issue, whether directly with the employee or in conversations about the employee, triggers you. You’re quickly irritated, if not outright angry. You list all the ways the employee frustrates you, misses expectations, and causes you stress. But you avoid direct discussion. Rather, you turn to sniping, passive aggression, and only token demonstrations of support.
You’ve lost trust.
And rather than re-establish a healthy working relationship, you remain on the sidelines booing the home team.
This never ends well.
There are only two rational choices when a performance gap is present — manage up or manage out. Yet so often, I see managers, leaders, and founders fall prey to a doomed third choice: Avoidance.
Avoidance is hard-wired into all humans. Once upon a time, we would turn a corner to find a dinosaur ready for a human-sized snack. Avoiding imminent death was a good idea (and still is). The challenge is that our amygdala, the part of our brain tasked with processing fear, is ill-equipped to handle our current reality. We face a hard conversation with an employee; we see a dinosaur. It takes serious self-work to notice a desire to avoid and then make an active choice not to do so. The manager in our story does not yet have such skill…
In fact, the manager has a blind spot. I posit that the anger the manager feels toward the under-performer is with himself, not the employee. They’re angry that they hired the wrong person or trained them poorly or managed them poorly, or all of the above. It is incredibly easy to manage a star — the team member who smoothly ramps, excels, and operates autonomously. It is quite another to find a path forward when things get bumpy.
What if, rather than being avoidant, we were to re-commit?
Once upon a time, I had an executive on my team who went from a high performer to a negative contributor in the span of a few short months. It was frustrating, to be sure. Previous to the dip, this was someone I barely had to manage. We would connect briefly each week and revisit goals, resources, and open issues. He then would charge ahead with both confidence and competence into the breach.
His performance dropped so precipitously that it impacted both peers and subordinates. I faced the question of what to do. I saw three options: move to restore performance, move to terminate, or ignore + pray. The third felt like a poor decision.
I delivered the following message:
“There is a gap between how you’re performing and what the company needs from the role.”
“I know you’re capable of delivering that performance.”
“The story in my head is that something is getting in your way — though I’m unclear whether that impediment is at work or outside of work.”
“I want you to hear that I’m all-in to help you succeed. I would love to explore what support you need to deliver the performance we both wish to see?”
The serenity prayer applies. I have the wisdom to know the difference between the change I can affect and that which I cannot. I previously had witnessed this person thrive, so I knew that the potential existed for him to do so again. But I also know that I can’t change other people. I have no such superpowers. I understood that my capacity to make an impact was limited to honest feedback, clear agreements, and nonjudgemental support. My colleague would have to do the rest.
The executive thanked me for the candor and shared how circumstances outside of work had deeply distracted him. He further shared that he loved our company and his role. He recognized that he had been failing but was too embarrassed to share his burden or ask for help. We spent hours both in the office and out unpacking his challenges. For many of them, I could play no role other than that of an empathetic listener. But for some of the challenges, I could help directly.
This story had a happy ending. Many don’t.
I subscribe to utilitarian ethics — the collective whole comes first. If I believe that further effort to restore performance poses a negative return for the wider company, then I’m left with one sane choice. Move on. Let the person go with grace and respect. And I won’t belabor the importance of terminating in such a way as to protect against litigation. There is ample content on the interwebs. What I will reinforce is that the moment I’ve decided I’m All-Out, I delay no further. I begin the discussion with the right people to map an end date, determine the steps to follow, and craft a communication plan both for the impacted employee and those who will ask questions after the fact.
I recognize that might sound abrupt. Or cold. I feel it is quite the contrary. Would you want to remain in a relationship if you learned your counterpart had chosen to move on? No one wins if the underperforming employee remains one day longer than the minimum time required for proper termination. By keeping your colleague unnecessarily in a role destined to end, you are robbing them of time that could be spent finding the role in which they might truly thrive. And I can’t imagine too many things more disrespectful than wasting someone’s time. Further, every day a known under-performer remains in a role is a cultural signal that mediocrity (or worse) is acceptable.
If I know there is a gap in performance, I ask myself a simple question: Am I All-In or All-Out? If the former, I consider all the ways in which I might support that person to succeed. And then I put forth all my effort. If the latter, I begin taking efficient and empathetic steps to remove the person from our company so that they can find a place they really belong. We’ll both be better for it.