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When Should Leaders Aim to Hold Their Fire?

I just had lunch with a good friend of mine from high school. He was recently fired for something fairly trivial and easily correctable with proper feedback. His manager merely told him, “You’re just not working out.” While he may not be a Rhodes Scholar, he is smart and extraordinarily hard-working. More importantly, he is eager to learn, get better, and be known as a great employee. He was well-liked by his co-workers and he has the work ethic that everyone wants on their team. He also noted that the manager fired his replacement three months later, as well. His story paints a perfect picture of a culture that’s quick to fire first and aim second. This type of environment rarely leads to the results leaders are looking for and it can create an intensely toxic work environment that stifles collaboration, creativity, and innovative thinking, all crucial elements of successful organizations in the 21st century.

When employees aren’t meeting their personal or organizational goals, we believe that leaders should seek to perform two tasks before removing an employee: 1) determine if strategic coaching and development¬†would solve the problem and 2) assess the underlying organizational environment and systems, including the presence of implicit biases, such as the fundamental attribution error.

Others agree, including Monique Valcour, Professor of Management at EDHEC Business School in France, who recently published the noteworthy article, “If You’re Not Helping People Develop, You’re Not Management Material,” in the Harvard Business Review. Professor Valcour insists that true leaders should participate in five key talent development functions, including holding regular conversations about career and business goals with each direct report and providing employees with regular feedback.

We should also seek to reduce implicit bias in our organizations, particularly the fundamental attribution error. Bret Simmons, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Nevada, teaches that this error occurs when we blame the person instead of the system, and that it’s extraordinarily common.

In a piece for the Harvard Business Review, Ben Dattner, Organizational Psychology Professor at NYU, also notes, “In careers and the workplace, this means that credit or blame for performance is likely to be assigned to an individual more based on his or her perceived character, personality, intentions or efforts rather than on the situation, context, opportunities or constraints within which that individual is working.”

While we concede that, in some cases, employees must be fired for legal, character, ethical, or performance reasons, holding your fire can create the kind of culture and talent pool that achieves goals by yielding the following benefits:

1. Enhancing people’s productivity by providing ongoing coaching and feedback builds morale, enhances engagement, and boosts productivity, each of which has a direct impact on the growth of people and, in turn, the bottom line.

2. Removing the fundamental attribution error and holding your fire creates a culture in which employees aren’t scared about the security of their jobs on a daily basis, thereby enhancing the culture of an organization without spending any additional money.

3. Reducing implicit bias and developing employees can easily save money by decreasing attrition and lowering recruiting, hiring, and onboarding costs. Hiring a new employee costs anywhere from 50% to 150% of that employee’s salary, depending on the industry and role. Furthermore, as seen in the short story at the beginning, unless the culture is adjusted, one can’t be assured that the person hired after someone is fired will be successful, either.

Terminating employment is never easy for anyone. However, it’s often the most common solution for someone who isn’t quite “working out.” However, this response can be misguided and speak more to a larger problem with leadership or organizational design. Rather than looking to rapidly eliminate employees who struggle, we should seek to coach and develop our people while consistently assessing our biases and the constraints of our systems. In the end, organizations looking to create a community that’s deliberately developmental will almost always have the best shot at moving people from “struggling” to “exceeding expectations.”

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