Any leader who has let an employee go knows how excruciating it can be to make that decision. It’s one of the most difficult decisions a leader must make. Given the gravity of the decision, it’s not surprising that most leaders put it off to the bitter end. We like to hold out hope that with a little more discussion, time, or effort the employee can turn things around.
Sometimes our hope isn’t based in reality. It’s based in our desire of what we hope will happen, says Dr. Henry Cloud in his book Necessary Endings. Cloud points out leaders need to have objective reasons to hold out hope that the future performance of an employee is going to be better than the past. No matter how many times the employee says “I’ll do better next time,” or “I’m sorry,” or “I am committed this time,” hard evidence is needed to suggest something will change in his performance. Cloud encourages leaders to have a “reason to believe” an employee can or will improve and he offers the nine objective reasons listed below. I found them extremely helpful and think you will too:
- Verifiable Involvement in a Proven Change Process – If the employee is willing to commit to coaching, mentoring, or some other proven process that could help change his behavior, then there is reason to hope his performance has a chance of improving. Many times all it takes is an objective third-party to help a poor performer see what he can’t see for himself.
- Additional Structure – By and large, Cloud says, people don’t change without some sort of structure. It’s hard to rewrite old patterns in our brain and we need a detailed structure to help us create new brain patterns. What new structure would you put in place to ensure the employee’s behavior or performance changes?
- Monitoring Systems – You know the old saying: “What gets measured gets managed.” To have objective hope that someone is going to improve, it’s necessary to have a monitoring system in place to evaluate their progress over time.
- New Experiences and Skills – Sometimes a person’s performance is suffering because he lacks the skills necessary to succeed in the role. The leader needs to determine if the employee is capable of learning the new skills, and if so, give the employee the chance to improve. If the employee has been given all the training necessary and still isn’t performing, then it would be foolish to expect more is going to help.
- Self-sustaining Motivation – In case you haven’t yet learned, you really can’t motivate anyone. You can work to create an environment where a person’s motivation can flourish, but at the end of the day, the person has to be self-motivated. Cloud suggests leaders look at how much they have to drive the process. If you’re doing all the work to get the employee to improve and he’s just along for the ride, then it’s clear who has the problem. It’s not the employee; it’s you.
- Admission of Need – When you address performance problems with the employee, does he recognize and admit the need for improvement, or is there always an excuse or someone to blame? It’s virtually impossible to help someone improve his performance if he doesn’t recognize the need.
- The Presence of Support – It’s essential that a person is given support during a change process. A person who is committed to working on improving his performance would benefit from being surrounded by other high performers who model the behavior the struggling employee is desiring to achieve.
- Skilled Help – For there to be real hope for the future, Cloud points out there must be someone in the circle of help who knows what he is doing. Coaching, mentoring, or peer-to-peer help can be great, but the people providing the help need to be qualified and have a solid track record of success.
- Some Success – Change takes time and leaders need to have patience while the employee works to improve his performance. But there also has to be movement forward. The leader needs to see the employee making positive strides in the right direction. Only the leader can determine the right amount of time to give a person to show signs of success, but there should be some sort of definitive timeline to the development plan.
It’s hard for leaders to give up hope an employee can improve. But if our hope isn’t based on the reality of the employee’s performance, we end up doing ourselves and the employee a disservice by not addressing the truth. These nine factors provide an objective way for leaders to decide whether they need to let a poor performer go or if there is hope for improvement.