“When it comes to human dignity, we cannot make compromises.” (Angela Merkel)
As we are working through these principles on how to improve the performance of our people, you might be tempted to wonder whether it might not be better to replace them. To be certain, there are times when the best course of action is to part ways with a person in our organizations. Some people are just not a good fit for a job, and sometimes a person’s behaviors and mistakes can be so great as to be a detriment to the overall organization. We aren’t talking here about those kinds of performers. In this set of principles, we’re looking at people who are doing a basically good job, but either have some holes in their performance, or have made mistakes. They might even be your stars, or rising stars, that need some additional coaching and counseling.
Before going down the path of replacing someone, consider the cost. When you have to replace an employee (for any reason), there will be lost productivity, the cost of doing a job search, training costs, and so on. I have seen estimates that range from 15% to over 200% of the original employee’s pay. (That’s not a typo. In the case of an employee who is earning$250,000 per year, the cost of replacement can run as high as $532,000 according to Corter Consulting). In most organizations, and for most of the people we are looking to replace, the cost is around 20%. That 20% represents over 10 weeks of a year, or between 2 and 3 months. That is a steep price to pay to replace someone. If the person is doing a basically good job, isn’t it in our best interest to help them to succeed?
Consider also the cost to the remaining organization if you fire someone. If the person you fire was of the kind I mentioned above who is almost toxic to the organization, then that firing might actually boost the morale of the remaining group. But, even that is not certain. If the person is doing a job, their departure is sure to cause issues in productivity for their co-workers. That’s likely bad enough if they leave on their own for greener pastures. If they left because you fired them, or demoralized them in the way you handle their issues, then it can be compounded in the organization.
In this section of principles, as we are working to become better leaders, we are learning How to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment. We know that we are looking to resolve some kind of an issue with someone, most often performance related. We’ve started by giving some praise and appreciation, we’ve been gentle in our approach, we’ve let them know that we also make mistakes, and we have used open-ended questions to help the person see the errors of their ways. This principles is, in my opinion, about helping the person we’re correcting maintain their dignity.
In my 3 decades of working in various companies and organizations, I have had my share of experience being the person on the side of the table receiving some negative feedback. I have seen my share of good and bad practices when it comes to these instances, so I know how both will feel to the person you’re coaching.
One team I lead many years ago had quite a strong comradery that included going to lunch together, and recognizing each other’s birthdays. We were an operational group, which meant that someone always had to be nearby tending the phones (before the days of ubiquitous cell phones, or even pagers). Usually we would rotate who stayed behind when we went out to lunch, which meant someone was always excluded – but not always the same person. To compensate for this, we would occasionally order in our lunch, so we could be near the phones, but still have some time together.
On one of these occasions, we were also recognizing birthdays, and the newest member of our team, who happened to be a bit quiet and shy, was in charge of bringing the cake we were all going to share. When she revealed the cake, she triggered what can only be described as an “inside joke” among several of us who’d been working together for a long time. I was a new leader at the time, and I wasn’t sufficiently aware of things. I missed the fact that this person was crushed by our laughter, thinking that we were ridiculing her in some way.
The next day, a Thursday, I was called to a conference room by my boss. He handed me a typed statement where he tore me apart for the incident. He was harsh in his criticism, and demeaned me as a leader and as a person. Let me be clear, I was wrong in how I had handled the original incident. But in his severity of dressing me down there was no way I could see that, let alone admit it and work to improve. He completely demoralized me.
Another time I was working on a team that had to manage finances for a large project. I and another member of the team made a mistake in our math as we were calculating what had already been spent, and it was the kind of mistake that made it look like we had more money left than we really did. We caught our own mistake, and corrected it as quickly as possible, but even that took a week or two. The manager who received the news called me into his office and lambasted me for a good 30 minutes. I hadn’t misspent any company funds, I had just made an error in calculation. We had been managing the funds for this project for over 4 years without a significant error. This time I earned a severe tongue lashing that lasted for days, even weeks.
A third time, much earlier in my career, I was working on a help desk. One of the people I was helping was the secretary for a high level manager. While I was trying to help her fix a problem, I made a mistake that ended up costing her several hours of work. It was purely my mistake. This customer and her boss had a reputation of being loud complainers when things didn’t go well, and they lived up to their reputation with a call to my boss. When he called me into his office, I knew the reason, and walked in with a bit of dread.
He and I discussed the problem, and he let me know that I had erred greatly. But he did so in a way that allowed me to keep my dignity. He didn’t attack me as a person, and he didn’t make it seem as though I had caused the company to come to a grinding halt. After our meeting I went about correcting the error, and repairing the relationship with the customer.
In one of those 3 examples, I remained loyal to my manager until he retired. In two of them I came to revile my manager’s very existence and looked immediately to change positions and leave their group. Can you guess which one received my loyalty, and which two bore the cost of replacing me? If you guessed that I remained loyal to the person who helped me keep my dignity, you are correct. I have often said that manager was one of the smartest people I ever had the privilege to work for, and that incident is one example of why.
When we are working to improve the performance of a person on our team, it is always important to remember to…
Principle 26 – Let the other person save face.