Supervisory Leadership

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Why do managers find it difficult to fire poor performers?

This is a problem common to managers in every industry. Here are a few of the reasons.

Reason number one is that human beings, managers and otherwise, simply don't like confrontation and all the things that go with firing involve confrontation. Not only is it not easy to do, managers get very little good training in how to do it.

There is very little training for people moving from individual contributor status to being responsible for a group. What training there is tends to focus on bureaucratic processes (time cards, forms, policies) and not on talking to people about performance.

The very little training on talking to people about performance tends to be one-time and theoretical. Leadership is an apprentice trade. We learn it mostly from other people and from trying things out. One training or book won't do the job, but it gets worse.

Yes, it gets worse. That's because training in talking to folks about performance often gives bad advice. Here's an example.

Most training says that when you talk to folks about performance you should first set them at ease by making small talk. There are two things wrong with that. First, you may not want to set them at ease. It may be more effective to have the uncomfortable so they have incentive to change.

Second, making small talk only sets some folks at ease. It makes others nervous. They prefer that you get right to the point of the meeting.

Beyond the talking to people about performance issue, there is the process you need to follow when you fire someone. It's long and arduous which means that many managers are reluctant to do it.

If you're going to fire someone, normally you will need to have multiple conversations about performance. Normally you will need to document the behavior of your subordinate. Guess what? Managers don't get much training in that, either.

Add to the above, the myths that circulate about how you can't fire people, especially people who belong to protected classes, and you have a recipe for lots of sub-par performers hanging on for years. The mythology has gotten us to fear lawsuits and tells us that they're inevitable.

So, managers are faced with a choice. They can do an uncomfortable task they haven't been trained for and which involves confrontation over and over. Or they can back off.


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