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.
Part of the manager’s job description is to retain the (better part of the) staff. Long-term staff accrue intimacy with the organization’s unique products and services; they are fluent in the local culture and know how to get things done. Naturally, the stars and even the solid players on the team are highly valued, especially by their direct manager whose personal success they most directly impact.
When one of those people comes into your office, closes the door and announces that s/he has decided to leave the team, shock and panic can be the automatic response. The sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight/freeze) is yelling inside your head, “We’re screwed.” You feign composure and then you proceed, on the spot, to try and rescue yourself and your team by changing the employee’s mind. If you have been asleep or disinterested in personal (not personnel) management, this is the first time you have ever asked the person what would bring her true job satisfaction.
If, instead, you have practiced personal management all along, you are not really surprised. Though you could never have predicted the exact timing, you knew this moment was becoming because you, like the employee, appreciate that most of the professional development available to this person in this job has already been realized.
Ethical employee retention is a continuous process and is not so arrogant to think that it possess an employee forever. The best employees are only passing through on their career journey. Pressure, persuasion and bribes at the last minute are disrespectful to the delicate discernment that brought the employee to this point. If you are successful at swaying her, you are not practicing retention, but detention. Detentions tend to be short and the employee leaves anyway.
First comes the shock, plus sadness or relief, that the old leader is stepping down (to “focus on other pursuits” or “spend more time with family”) and a new name is being installed. Then comes the requisite staff or all-hands meeting. You listen to a polished presentation – encouraging, opportune, fresh, articulate – and you come away thinking that this new person might really be OK, might actually address the organization’s challenges and exercise good governance over the business and its employees.
Your breath of hopefulness means that the executive has accomplished the presentation’s main goals: settle nerves, hasten adjustment, and spark optimism – all of which promote a return to productivity in the work force. The broad term for this mass mood management is politics. In fact you have learned nothing about the leadership style or effectiveness of the new boss.
Giving a speech to the masses (defined as people you do not know personally but whose support you need) is the ultimate stage for the persona, that part of the psyche that is well-behaved, unoffensive, even likeable. People marvel at how they can encounter the same person in a smaller meeting, more so in a 1:1, and see a completely different, much darker character. That’s the shadow side of the psyche, the accrual of developmental defects piled on a base of shame. Balancing this darkness are the person’s gifts and virtues. Political speeches within organizations are neither good nor bad; they are just completely unrevealing.
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.
A wise manager – who is only wise because he learned from outside as well as inside his field – gave me this memorable parallel between corporate and religious leadership. People “of the Book” (Jews, Christians, Muslims) are all familiar with the history of the prophets. They critique the system from within, though from the margins of the organization. Prophets do not predict the future in detail but call out trends, disruptions, downward slides and divergence from core values. They see a higher ideal, a higher level of group consciousness. An organization with no capacity or tolerance for self-criticism will blindly march toward irrelevance or extinction.
But prophets are rarely popular within their organization. They do not win mass conversions and in biblical times they usually ended up dead (now retired, fired, transferred, sidelined, etc.) (Mark 6:4). They face the priesthood, whose job it is to justify and perpetuate the system. Priests provide continuity, policies (dogma), procedures (rituals) that allow the organization to join forces and move as one; they embody and give voice to the company. Every organization is self-justifying and self-perpetuating, just like every organism. Criticize it and the priests will circle the wagons. This is just normal reactivity, not some kind of evil.
Priests have a much longer life expectancy than prophets in corporate leadership. Know which one you are before you invest too much in that career path.