EP10 – When Is It Time To Fire Someone At Work – Part 2

I was on a trip in Darfur, Sudan, with an organization called Persecution Project Foundation. We were doing a clean water project when I met a guy on the trip named Frank Seekins. He talked about working on an apple orchard and how he learned the importance of pruning as a way to maximize the amount of fruit from each tree.

Three Branches

In an apple orchard, there are three branches on a tree that you have to prune. The first is a branch that is laying on another branch. Neither can grow to their full potential. 

The second thing he said you prune on an apple tree is the shoots that shoot up. They’re called ‘suckers’ because they’re not actually part of the tree but use the tree’s root system. They look like part of the tree…healthy and great. The problem is they yield no fruit..

Then the third thing you prune is big, heavy branches that lean the tree in the direction of the branch. The tree becomes uprooted as the soil loosens.

When I think about firing someone, I think of it like pruning a tree. As awkward and heavy the decision is to fire someone, firing is a necessary process to keep the organization running. The interest should be for the organization and team as a whole. All it takes is a single person or persons to weigh down the growth opportunity. How do you know who to prune? 

The 3 Types of People to Fire

The first type of branch we prune is where two lean on one another. This is a problem because these branches create fungus and we see this in situations where 2 people are performing the same work with no added benefit. 

I think of someone sitting at the laptop pouring over the screen while someone else is standing behind looking over their shoulder giving them critiques. If a team member doesn’t have the capacity to do the job unless someone is checking on them, I either haven’t provided the appropriate training or have the wrong team member in that position. 

Oftentimes, the problem isn’t the worker; it’s the micromanager. Micromanagers diminish organizational culture. Team members stop working for the organization and instead focus on meeting the micromanager’s requirements. It’s a bad environment all around. 

Conversely, a hero manager is also a problem. A hero manager is the person who steps in and takes care of everyone’s problems. They swoop in like a superhero right as a mistake is being made. “I will fix this problem!” they proudly proclaim. 

This manager sounds like an asset not a liability. Many organizations would LOVE to have someone like this. The problem is they become a single point of failure. If something happens to that person and they leave the organization, they take the competencies and skill sets with them. Everyone else on the team depending on the hero manager is left scurrying. 

A good manager isn’t the one swooping in to fix problems. 

A good manager ensures the team is achieving full capacity and working with their skillset. If I’m leading an organization and have a hero manager, I need to find a way to have them become part of the team rather than staying on top pulling them up. Hero managers destroy systems because they are the system. 

If a leader is used to being a hero manager, it’s not the fault of the hero manager themselves. They’re just doing what comes naturally. If somebody is being a micromanager, it’s not necessarily their fault. That’s just what they’ve been trained to.

If you run the organization, though, you have to give them a deadline to stop micro-or-hero managing. Organizations cannot grow to their full potential if they have hero managers or micromanagers. Neither leader will do.

Don’t Be a Sucker for a Sucker

Suckers are another type to watch for. Suckers are people in an organization that are universally liked by all but add little to no value for the organization itself. Let’s say I need to hire a salesperson, Sue, to increase my revenue to 10%. Everyone in the organization loves Sue, including myself.  In a year, I evaluate her performance and notice our sales are still at 5%. I have a terrible decision to make. 

Just because I like someone doesn’t mean that our organization needs them on staff. Just because everyone on the team likes this person doesn’t mean you keep them on the team. It’s a difficult decision to be in but remember that this is about growing the organization. 

Suckers use the same root system of your organization but don’t produce fruit for the organization. 

It sounds harsh to fire someone that is so well-liked but keeping them at the organization not only sets a bad precedent for performance but also stalls organizational momentum. You’re not doing the team any favors by keeping people on just because you like them. They may have immense talent; it’s just displaced at your organization. They may find a more fertile place to grow elsewhere. 

The third type is the big, hulking branch that leans the entire organization. If you have a team member with an incredibly high skill set that they should be running their own organization, you should help them out the door with your blessing.

These types of people to dismiss may come as a surprise to the team but you can’t have an organization leaning heavily on the direction and guidance of a single team member. 

I think it’s important to stop here and point out that firing should not be a “guns a-blazin’” approach to management. You lead with “Do we have the right systems in place for incentive, expectation, and feedback?” first. Firing should only be the last resort when all other options have been exhausted. 

Assassins In the Midst

However, there are two types of people that you need to fire for the good of the organization. The first is what I call a culture assassin. The culture assassin has a bad attitude that doesn’t just impact themselves but those around them. Their bad attitude isn’t self isolating or self-limiting. 

The problem with these personalities is they bring the rest of the team down with them. They sink the ship. These people need to be corrected and then if the problem persists, fired. 

The other type of person you may come across is the system assassin. The system assassin refuses to change and learn. They potentially derail where you want to go. Anytime a new initiative, project, or method is introduced they roll their eyes and do all they can to resist that change. These people are a hazard to organizational health. They have to go. 

The Last Resort

Firing should not be the first and primary response to the behaviors and personalities described above. Do all you can to coach people to success. Coaching is a win for everyone. You may be able to turn someone around in your organization and they get to realize their potential. Co-workers and team members will see this dynamic play out. It has huge payoffs if you do it right. 

We at Growability want to see an organization reach their fullest potential. Not a great potential…not some potential…fullest potential.