When To Get Rid Of The "Best" People Who Work For You
My last post on management, When Firing Someone, Focus On Those That Remain, got me thinking about how organizations function and the role of various types of people within organizations. Inevitably, some people work well within certain organizations and some work poorly. Perhaps one of the most interesting facts about this dynamic is that an employee’s ability to work well in any organization and thus, his or her value to it, can’t always be judged by the most obvious measures like individual performance, effort, innovativeness or even productivity. Of course, this is counterintuitive to most managers who, generally like to judge people in the easiest, most one-dimensional fashion. Sorry guys, in my experience it’s always been way more complicated than that.
Let me start with a little personal flashback . . . When I started managing people some 25 years ago, I was like most new managers – naive and poorly trained. Initially, I didn’t have many good role models (although I was later fortunate to be in the position to learn from some incredible managers and leaders) and I ended up being initiated into management the old fashioned way – through trial and error. I made my fair share of mistakes along the way (as I continue to do today), but remained conscious of the need to learn from them. Sometimes I actually did. Usually, though, I had to make the same mistake multiple times before finally discovering what was the cause and what was the effect of anything going on around me.
One of the problems I encountered more often than I’d like to admit took me a very long time to figure out. It’s the problem of having one of the best people working for me in terms of performance to their assigned task also being a performance black hole for the rest of the organization. You know the type, they usually consume more of the manager’s time than anyone else; they openly vent disagreements in direction or goals in a negative manner without regard to who’s listening; they spend hours each day discussing all that is wrong with the company or group with people that are not as productive and, therefore, can’t afford that time; and they completely ignore the impact of their natural leadership position by virtue of their high-performance and productivity.
To make matters worse, they are often the people that a manager will rely upon when things are looking bad and schedules are not going to be met. They are the go-to people and everyone around them knows it. They are looked up to and have loads-o-power and influence in the organization. I’ve never met anyone like this who chooses to devote this power to the Dark Side, although I’m sure there are some who make this conscious decision. Most, however, just do it because it’s the way they are; they believe it’s their place, their right and their responsibility.
As a relatively poor manager, I worked hard to try to make these people use their power for good. I spent the time nursing and cajoling them at every turn. I discussed every issue they had, every idea they preferred and every adjustment they felt should be made. Nothing seemed to change. I gave them assignments that I thought would absorb them, sent them into the field to work with sales people and customers and gave them tasks outside their group to challenge them in new ways. As extremely smart and productive people, they handled these new tasks with ease and came back no different before, but armed with more issues and “suggestions.”
It didn’t take long before I realized that I was spending inordinate amounts of time and energy on these people. This had the double-negative effect of taking up time that could have been devoted to others who could improve given that dedicated effort and no change in behavior from the person who was getting the time and attention.
The first time I ran across such an employee, I bailed out of my managerial responsibility by talking him into joining another group within the company. While that was far from the right thing from the company’s viewpoint, he was out of my hair and I could get back to advancing my own group. An embarrassingly wrong thing to do in retrospect.
I eventually figured out that the real problem was a mismatch in culture and values. I was lost because I thought I could work with a person on the single dimension of how they delivered to plan and schedule – how they got their job done. I slowly began to realize that this dimension is actually much less important than another one – cultural alignment.
I struggled with this whole concept until I read Jack Welch and the GE Way by Robert Slater. In this book, Slater discusses a tool that Welch used at GE to determine who the most valuable people in the company were. It was a four-quadrant chart with a scale representing the employee’s ability to “deliver results” on one axis and that employee’s desire to “support GE’s values” on the other axis. An employee supported GE’s values, in Welch’s view, when they acted on a set of 8 documented principles plus a variety of other management and leadership approaches – all part of “The GE Way.”
While I didn’t think that the detailed GE Way was appropriate for my small group (or even the entire company I worked for), I did think that Welch’s concept of values translated into my view of the overall culture of a company. That is, that a company’s culture promotes and supports a certain type of behavior and work ethic, even in its unwritten, undocumented form. This behavior and ethic becomes the great coordinator of the organization. Its guiding hand, in a sense. In the end, when people adopt the culture, they work well within the organization. When they fight the culture, they fail. They’re failure is often not only an individual failure – they often can take the people around them down too.
To help myself picture how this works, I made a slight adaptation to Welch’s four-quadrant chart to help me think through what to do about it. Aside from the change from the more rigid concept of “values” to the less specific idea of “culture,” my adaptation has some slight differences in the actions taken in each quadrant. Here’s my version . . .
In quadrant 2, the employee is both culturally aligned and productive. The managerial actions here are pretty straightforward – do everything you can to keep these people and use them as an example for what makes the organization work. The company doesn’t only gain from what they produce, but more importantly, on how they affect other people – through their success, they promote the culture of the organization and teach others how to be successful within it.
Employees in quadrant 3 are almost as straightforward. Welch would say that you should punt on these people immediately. I’m a little softer on them. There is a reason that you hired them; some ability or spark that you thought added value to the organization. Put them on a plan, tell them what they’re doing wrong or not doing at all and try to guide them into another quadrant. I would put them on a very short leash, though, and would not be afraid of firing them or moving them to some other group where they could work out better in fairly short order.
Quadrant 4 is for those people who are culturally aligned but are not producing what is expected of them. In my view, these people deserve the most effort (the most attention goes to those in quadrant 2 who often need less help to be successful). Since they are already culturally aligned, the manager only needs to help them become more productive, the easier of the elements to change. Here again, a plan may be warranted but, in this case, it should be one that is more guiding and nurturing than like an ultimatum as in quadrant 3.
Finally, there are those in quadrant 1. Again Welch says to get rid of these people immediately. For some of these people, I agree wholeheartedly. Others, though, may be worthy of a short effort to move to quadrant 2. The trick here is that these are the hardest people to fire because they are the most productive AND they are recognized as such by the other people in the organization. What the manager has to keep in mind here is that while that individual may be very productive, they decrease the productivity of the entire organization. Their anti-cultural behavior is a drag to everyone else that is almost impossible to measure.
If you consider just the managerial opportunity cost of these people, alone, and try to quantify how the productivity of the rest of the organization could increase if the manager spent his/her time with everyone else, the decision becomes more clear. Additionally, while there will be other employees that may not understand firing such a great performer, most will understand that this is the right thing to do. As you continue to weed this type of person out of the organization, the message about the importance of the culture will become clear to everyone that remains.
In my experience, getting rid of people that are not culturally aligned may be one of the most important actions a manager can take to make their group better. While it is not obvious at first, the group will actually increase in overall productivity by getting rid of these seemingly highly productive individuals. This gain will accelerate over time, too, as the organization becomes completely aligned with the culture and the people within it are clear about how they fit and what behavior is rewarded. This all assumes, of course that the the organization’s guiding hand of culture is a reasonable one. But that would be a topic for another post . . .