How Firing a Terrible Employee Made Me a Better Manager
Before I was your friendly neighborhood PBC, I spent a decade as a faculty manager for a test prep company. This meant that I was hiring, training, scheduling, supporting, and developing a staff of between 80 and 130 teachers as they helped about a thousand students a year prepare for various standardized tests. To add to the fun, I was doing all this remotely. Very early on in this role, maybe even in my first month, I had a teacher named Pat who I really wanted to fire.
Pat had been one of the last hires before I took over the position. The outgoing manager was desperate to staff a class and was willing to hire “anyone with a pulse” to get it done. The student evaluations after Pat’s first class made me question whether he even met the “has a pulse” requirement. Simply put, he was a bad teacher, and I didn’t want him in front of any students anymore. So, I decided I was going to fire Pat and since I didn’t have unilateral firing authority, I scheduled a call with my director to talk it through.
The call did not go as I expected it would. Pat was objectively terrible, and I had the student surveys to prove it, but when I told my director I wanted to fire him she asked, “If you were to ask Pat how he was performing, what would he say?” My immediate response was, “Oh he knows he’s terrible. I mean he must know… Doesn’t he?” I hadn’t been his manager long; I had no idea what his training had actually been like or what feedback he had been given. I had sixty classes running at that time and was a month into the job, so I certainly had not spent a lot of time with him yet. In the few conversations I had with him, I had wanted to be the nice, supportive boss, so I hadn’t discussed his performance at all. She then asked me, “If you were in his position, would you want to know you weren’t doing a good job before you lost your opportunity to do a better one?”
Kim Scott explains this idea in her book “Radical Candor” in far greater detail. She shares that being a compassionate and caring person is not at odds with challenging your employees or creating a high performing team. In fact, the two have to go hand in hand. A manager who is kind and friendly, but never challenges their staff and never discusses areas of opportunity, is creating an environment where they will never grow or improve. If you want your team to improve, you must challenge them. Conversely, a manager who berates their staff, is brutally honest and constantly challenges without compassion or showing concern, is creating an environment where their team will be too afraid to ask for help and too unwilling to take any risks. If you want your team to improve, you must show them you care about them and their success. Both need to exist in order for your entire team to succeed. This is a lesson that Google also discovered.
About the same time as Kim Scott published her book, Google commissioned a study on high performing teams. To the surprise of many, they found that top performing teams were not teams comprised of top performing employees, and that poorly performing teams were not teams comprised of poor performing employees. Instead, they found what in fact determined performance was something they called “Psychological Safety.” Essentially, they discovered that high performing teams were ones that felt comfortable giving and receiving honest, constructive feedback in a collaborative and solutions focused way. They were teams that felt comfortable admitting and pointing out mistakes, taking risks, asking for help, and were willing to work together towards improvement without assigning blame. The teams that were comfortable doing that far outperformed all other teams. This is what my director was trying to teach me.
After my conversation with her, I met with Pat and we had an honest, compassionate yet unflinching discussion regarding his performance. I discovered he was very aware of his poor performance, but he had no idea how to improve it. We discussed additional support opportunities, I assigned him further training, and then I did something that I wouldn’t have done before my conversation; I assigned him to another class. He and I worked together to create clear and measurable performance indicators for that class, and I made sure he clearly understood what would happen if he failed to meet those goals. By the end of our conversation, I was optimistic that he would improve, but more importantly, I was confident that if he didn’t, it would not be because I was the one who had failed him.
Now, I wish this story had a happy ending, but it doesn’t. At least, this part of it doesn’t. Pat finished his class, and while he showed improvement, it was not significant enough for me to feel comfortable assigning him another. In our last conversation we discussed how he had failed to meet the goals we had set, and therefore I was terminating his employment. To my surprise, he actually thanked me. He said he felt like I had given him a fair chance to improve, I had given him all the support he needed, and he agreed that teaching was not for him.
The happy ending came several years later with another faculty member, Jenny. Jenny had been transferred to my team and her previous manager told me I would likely need to fire her in a couple months. She wasn’t a bad teacher, but her lack of confidence and neediness was hindering her from being successful in her role. She needed so much additional support, hand holding and reassurance that she left little time to support all the other teachers that reported to me. I scheduled a call with Jenny and we had an honest, compassionate yet unflinching discussion about her constant need for reassurance and how it was counterproductive to our need for her to be autonomous and self-directed. Jenny told me she always reached out to ask for help because she was so afraid she would make a mistake if she didn’t. So, we discussed what would happen if she ever actually made a mistake. Then we discussed her performance, and we worked together to find better ways for her to get the support she needed. Jenny was surprised to hear that she was actually doing a great job teaching.
Not only did Jenny improve after our conversation, she thrived. She was confident, decisive, and was able to solve problems on her own without my input. Her solutions were not always my solutions, and she did make the occasional mistake, but she would discuss them with me afterwards and always learned from them. Two years after her previous manager told me she would likely need to be fired she was nominated for national teacher of the year. She had earned such a strong reputation that we trusted her enough to go to Saudi Arabia to teach the SAT to children of the royal family.
As a manager, the next time you find yourself complaining about someone on your team ask yourself, do they know they are not performing well? Have you ever discussed their performance with them? Do they feel comfortable talking to you about mistakes and asking for help? Does your company culture allow a team member to recognize a mistake a coworker made, discuss it with them in a supportive way, and work with them to improve? If not, why? What’s getting in the way? If you have a Pat or a Jenny on your team right now and you’re not doing anything about it, ask yourself what the payoff is. Your payoff may be avoiding an uncomfortable conversation, but you’re trading in the opportunity to have a thriving team. Talk to your coach about your Pats and Jennys. We’ll work with you on how to have these challenging conversations. Not every conversation will end with an audience with a royal family, but I like knowing that some of them can.
Brutal Honesty and Radical Candor
High performing Teams Need Psychological Safety
Practice Building Coach
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
9444 Balboa Avenue, Suite 300
San Diego, California 92123
Phone: (858) 453-2128
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