Real Leaders Don't Fire People

Managing is hard and confusing. People are complicated and thorny. Some are irascible and some run hot and cold. Like the other important people in our lives—spouses, children, siblings, parents, and close friends—our employees confound and annoy us. So how do we respond? If our answer is, “these employees tick me off; I think I’ll fire them,” we’ve abdicated our responsibilities as managers and leaders.

There aren’t people who should be fired from our organization “immediately” because they fall into some category of non-fit employees.

Let’s own up to some facts: We hired each member of our team from a field of candidates. We made choices one-by-one, presumably with careful attention to the pros and cons of engaging each of them. If we didn’t hire them, we inherited them from another manager or got them into our crews by way of acquisition, and we’ve kept them on the payroll through the current day at our own discretion. In other words, we own them. Yes, the law allows us to summarily give them the boot. But is it the right thing to do—or merely the easy thing?

I’d argue that managers who fire people more often than once in a blue moon are lousy managers unsuited to lead teams. There are two ways to manage: through fear and intimidation or through trust. The first way is fast. It’s expedient. The second way is slow and time-consuming. It requires understanding of a team member’s history, aspirations, and passions. Some of us don’t have time for that. It’s much easier to use the big stick on our employees (see “Probation for a 48-Year-Old Employee?”) than to dig in and discover what an employee is doing and why, and how a vocally critical or unshiny, unhappy employee can help us learn about ourselves and our organization. It takes time to do these things but it’s critical. In fact, digging in when employees aren’t happily singing the company song is the essence of leadership. When we bite the bullet and sit with our most-challenging employees, asking them to share world views with us, we can learn something if we truly listen. The conversation opens up. When we say, “You’re fired,” the conversation is over. The learning stops.

High-Fiving After Someone Exits

I was a corporate human resources vice-president for 10 million years. I sat through more terminations than I care to remember, scores of them over time. Some of the managers delivering the bad news were reflective, regretful. Some of them had the air of victors in a contest—“I won!” They’d high-five their buddy managers in the hallway when the deed was done, when Mr. or Ms. Difficult had boxed up personal items and headed out the door. I’d wonder: “What did that manager learn today?” You don’t learn a thing unless you’re open to learning. If you’ve talked yourself into the view that being the manager makes you right, you make learning impossible.

It’s easy to lead the troops when everyone is working hard in the right direction. When we are so fortunate as to have that sort of momentum, we can easily pat ourselves on the back, take credit for the success of the team, and stop listening. It happens every day as industries shift and company dynamics change. We can say, “get rid of non-believers” and summarily remove people whose frustration with us comes from our own inability to listen to great ideas and implement them. We can lose the smartest, most eyes-open people on our teams by drinking the Kool-Aid that gets us to believe that anyone who doesn’t see the world our way qualifies as a loser.

In the canon of bad old business advice out there, you’ll find the adage: “Hire slow, fire fast.” That one is particularly brainless because it rests on the assumption that managers have as long as they like to consider job applicants (as if the most talented, sought-after candidates couldn’t abandon the process for a better, faster-appearing offer somewhere else) and because it suggests there are good reasons to make speedy personnel changes.

There’s Always Time to Talk

Looking back on my 30 years (okay, it merely seemed like 10 million) as an HR chief and consultant to employers, I can’t think of three situations where the right decision was to say a quick “sayonara” to a teammate. Barring violence or theft, I can’t remember one situation where that would have been appropriate. Isn’t it smarter for all concerned to have a further conversation, brainstorm solutions, and if nothing else, to remember why we chose to work together in the first place? Only a poor manager says, “I don’t want to deal with all that. No time for more conversation—off with his (or her) head.” That’s not advice that good managers follow themselves, much less teach others.

We should hire people relatively quickly and take more time, rather than less, in deciding to part ways. The people who have the most to teach us aren’t always the ones we’re dying to hear from. That’s the way the universe sets it up. We can cling to our pathetic little title and authority to fire people or we can humble ourselves to learn something from the sometimes-difficult people who don’t see things our way. In other words, we can be petty bureaucrats or we can be leaders.

Any time someone gets fired, a manager has failed. He or she hired the wrong person, moved someone into the wrong job, or screwed up in some other way. When it’s necessary to show an employee the door, it’s going to be because we’ve tried and failed to fix whatever in the relationship and the structure wasn’t working. It’s never going to be because the person fits a category that someone has outlined for us. That, in fact, is the opposite of leadership.

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