If you have been practicing personal management, you know your direct reports on a personal level. You have a good sense of their strengths, their interpersonal style, their values and priorities. You even have some idea about what’s going on in the rest of their lives – the larger context of their work performances.
Thus, when there is a downward performance trend, you’re in a good position to assess, collaboratively, whether this person needs help (resources, counseling, encouragement, motivation) or if s/he is (no longer) in the right job. Often, he is not even in the right profession.
Instead of firing this person (adversarial and often too much trouble) or waiting to cull him in the next lay-off (disingenuous), put the effort into convincing him to quit. “Guided quitting” is positive for both parties. How do you execute it?
- Maintain an attitude of total positive regard. The problem is with fit and both parties are losing. However, the employer has survived less-than-optimal employees in the past, so this is really all about what’s best for the employee.
- Do the help versus placement discernment in collaboration with the employee. Work until he agrees that the issue is placement. He’s in the wrong job for his strengths and/or his desire.
- Emphasize authenticity in the employee’s career. “Do what you like and like what you do.” Moreover, “play to your strengths; nobody else has quite the same set.” Also, authenticity is the argument against simply compensation-driven job calculations.
- Highlight opportunity cost. While he stays here, his better placements are left undone, unattended, unfulfilled.
Sure, there will be many/most that you will not convince, but they will have an alternative storyline for their dismissal that they cannot easily discard. It may just change their lives later on.
A deep assumption that drives maladaptive behavior and bad business decisions in managers is that the organization plays by the substitution rules of baseball (or world football). Once you are taken out of the game, you are permanently out. This belief causes a manager to have an overly self-invested view of his or her charter. Your product or technology – as currently organized – becomes the most important thing on earth! If your career is, in effect, tied to that belief, then it is actually a matter of personal survival, and you start to sound to others like a turf-protecting, near-sighted self-promoter.
During a re-org, we use language like “who’s out.” When “out” equals irrelevance forever, the re-org is no longer about adapting to technology and the business, but entirely about personal winners and losers. Such a mindset can drag down the morale of the entire organization.
Stars on the Bench
Under the rules of basketball (hockey, North American football), free substitution is permitted and expected. Even the stars go to the bench once in a while. Players (managers) go into the game according to the situation and their unique strengths, or sometimes just to give others a rest. Most importantly, they fully expect to go back into the game, maybe even in a somewhat different position/role. Versatility is highly valued. Some players even signal that they need to come out of the game temporarily. At that point the blinders are off and you are free and trusted to make the best decisions for the business and the larger group.
Few careers follow a linear path of ascent until some self-selected retirement age, whereupon leisure compensates for any hardship or drudgery one had to endure along the way. Whether it is a layoff or a related interrupt (re-org, re-assignment, loss of responsibility, dismissal), your run of success likely will not last. Any number of personal shifts or environmental conditions can throw you out of your saddle. Perhaps the most insidious precipitant is that your long-followed path (profession, field, domain, goal) no longer has the same meaning for you. You even want to volunteer for the layoff.
Failure, great suffering and the crises of meaning are the only high priority, non-maskable events that have the power to interrupt your current program for happiness (likely a fairly tight loop) and get you to start experiencing in a greater context and considering a larger meaning. When and if this happens to you, do not waste the moment in resentment or assigning blame. You have the invitation, even the demand, to stand back and self-assess. How can you be more fully human? Have you been ignoring any of your other gifts? “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (Mary Oliver).