By Art Petty
The short answer payoff to the issue of how to tell someone it’s over is with clarity and empathy.
The long answer is that getting to this point, particularly with someone who displays a positive attitude and desire to improve—but lacks the ability for the needed work is a process that must be filled with feedback, coaching and skills training.
However, every performance improvement process must end at a decision point. Either the individual has made it and will continue on with the firm, or, after due diligence and a process steeped in fairness, it’s clear it’s time for them to move on to something outside your firm.
Tough conversations are inherent in a manager’s job. I long ago learned to efficiently and humanely dispatch toxic actors. However, nothing for me and many other managers is more difficult than cutting ties with an individual who displays the right attitude and effort, yet is misplaced in their job.
Beware this Common Trap!
And here’s where my conscience and genuinely nice guy perspective (seriously!) creates a real problem. It’s easy to either create a new role for this positive attitude, high-effort individual — one you perceive fits their abilities — or, to negotiate with peers to place them in a different department. Be careful when you’re considering this move. In most cases, it’s a trap.
Nearly every time I’ve taken this kinder, gentler problem, it’s come around to kick me in the rear. It worked once, and in this case, it had an excellent outcome for the individual and the firm. The other times it was effectively a make-new-work approach that left the rest of the team holding the bag on the original workload. In a few cases, it was not much more than passing the problem off to another manager. The intentions were great, and all parties were in agreement, but some experiments come with too heavy of a cost.
Working Up to The “We’re Not Going Any Further” Conversation
I’m leaving it up to you and your buddies in human resources to ensure you’ve followed a fair, well-documented process designed with the intention of finding a positive outcome. (Note: I despise the use of performance improvement programs for pre-ordained firing conclusions. However, that’s a rant for another day.)
You own the feedback, coaching and provision of adequate training as part of your obligation here. Half-hearted and half-baked efforts don’t cut it. You need to spend time observing, coaching and teaching. The discussions must be clear, plentiful, timely and focused on observed and measurable outcomes.
The Final Conversation Should Never Be a Surprise
As you prepare for a sit-down and talk about continued sub-standard performance, it’s imperative to draw upon your recent observations and examples, as well as to reference the entire sequence of events thus far.
I counsel you to prepare an opening set of sentences to frame the discussion and conclusion up front. It’s imperative to adjust your tone and language to the situation and to avoid confusing the case with the tendency many have to start and end a negative discussion with positive praise. Here’s a sample opener for this difficult conversation:
Bob, we’ve worked together for the past 90 days to identify and support opportunities your performance shortfalls. We’ve monitored the actions and outcomes together, and after considerable effort by all parties, the results haven’t improved sufficiently to merit moving forward. We’re here to talk about your transition out of the organization.
Where’s the Empathy?!
I’m regularly on the receiving end of comments that question whether I have a heart. “Art, that opener is cold. Where’s the empathy and humanity in it?” I received this direct comment on the statement above in a recent live workshop. The emotion of the comment sounded like outrage.
My very calm response is that extraordinary empathy coupled with genuine support was displayed daily and sometimes hourly during the entire duration of the performance improvement process. I will metaphorically move mountains to strive and help good people help themselves. However, when the conclusion is reached, clarity is the most honest, authentic, respectful means of communication.
Don’t Let Your Discomfort Cloud the Final Discussion
Many a manager has fallen victim to their perceived need to make this easier by surrounding the core message of, “It’s over,” with all manner of praise. That’s a horrible idea, much like the praise sandwich of feedback fame. While offering praise might assuage your conscience a bit, all it does is confuse the receiver, potentially engendering bitterness. It’s understandable for them to wonder, “If I’m so good, why are you firing me?” Skip offering unproductive and frankly, disingenuous praise at this time. If you’ve done your job all along, there’s no need for it.
The Bottom-Line for Now
Letting someone you like go from your organization is indeed personally difficult, and ultimately it wraps up in a challenging conversation. Take the pressure off of yourself and the receiver of this message and speak honestly and clearly, and then help them navigate the transition with their colleagues with grace and dignity.
Art Petty helps executives and firms develop the emerging leaders critical for their future in this era of change and uncertainty. Before devoting his work full-time to his leadership development, coaching, and speaking practice, Art served in various executive roles as Senior Vice-President, Strategy, Sales, and Marketing for multiple software firms. Earlier in his career, he served as Marketing Strategy Director for a NYSE industrial conglomerate and Group Manager for a systems division of one of the world’s largest electronics manufacturers.