It’s not you it’s me. Or maybe it’s you. ‘Breaking up’ with bad employees is hard to do.

As an executive coach and management consultant, one thing I do a lot of is help business owners and managers identify poorly performing employees, or ones that are just not a good cultural fit. Once identified, it becomes a matter of how much time and energy to apply in an attempt to remedy the situation and develop a high performing team. I can say definitively that performance NEVER improves without feedback and that bad cultural fit is rarely (but not never) fixable.  I have also observed that nine times out of ten, I am not telling anyone anything new in this process. Everyone already knows what’s working and what isn’t, so why do bad situations last for so long? I’ve come to the conclusion that hanging on to an employment match that isn’t working is very similar to the dynamics at play in a failing romantic match. If you have ever been in or been a witness to a destructive, doomed-to-fail romance (and if you haven’t, my most sincere congratulations), you have probably noticed these tendencies:

Misplaced Guilt

As employers we can often take on more than our fair share of blame for the poor performance. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am an extreme advocated for ruthless self-examination in these processes (as those who’ve worked with me can attest) but at some point, the employee has to own their part as well. If you want your employee to succeed more than they do, it’s not going to work. If a manager feels guilty because they hired the employee away from another job, or relocated them, or isn’t paying the desired salary, they often end up tolerating sub-par performance as a result of the guilt. This never ends favorably for either party. If you feel like you made a mistake hiring them, sometimes the best thing you can do is open up about it and give them the freedom to decide if this is where they want to be or not and what it will take. (Now, if you’re feeling guilty because you’re denying time, training or resources required to be successful…this is NOT misplaced guilt…this is on you to fix so get to it!).

Rose-Colored Glasses

Or, ‘being in love with their potential’. This is the ‘if only’ person that if they just performed the way you knew they can (but never do) would be a first caliber rock star. If you tend towards co-dependency, you well know what I’m referring to here. This is the employee you continually make allowances for because of the glimpses of brilliance you have seen from time to time that are usually eclipsed by crushing personal drama, or some other upset that derails their awesomeness. Unfortunately, if you have a pattern of almost’s and not quite’s, this may not be the place that potential will be unleashed. As frustrating as it can be for this employee (or paramour) to finally exhibit their greatness after leaving your side, try to be realistic and understand that the chemistry just isn’t there in this match for them to shine.

‘Should’-it is

This is when you hire someone that ‘should’ be perfect but just isn’t. Whether you have worked it out in your head or someone else (your boss, a recruiter, etc) told you it should work, the fact is that ‘should’ is rarely helpful. Maybe you had a misunderstanding of what the role actually required, or maybe the person misrepresented themselves, or maybe things have just changed. When it’s not right it’s not right and no amount of should-ing all over the situation can change that. This is where an objective assessment of the situation is required. What strengths does the person actually bring (versus should bring) and what do you actually need (versus should need) and can the gap be breached?

Fear that this is as good as it gets

Sometimes we can hold false beliefs that we need to hang on to under-performing employees because we’re not going to get anyone any better. Maybe we can’t pay competitively, maybe the market is tight or maybe a million things but if you honestly think this is the best you can get then you are never going to address the problem. I suggest looking at the data before committing to the belief. Sometimes you’d be surprised at who you can attract if you are really honest about your opportunity. As I’ve mentioned before, you as a leader, and your particular culture, represent a dream job for someone. So don’t be hampered by a fear of being alone or a fear that you can’t do any better. Even if you can’t do better…ask yourself…can you honestly do any worse?

I do realize that all this is much easier for the observer to see than the manager in the middle of it. Emotions come with being human and it’s just about impossible to take all the noise out of the equation to determine how to handle problem employees. I’m the first one to suggest feedback, coaching, training and all the developmental behaviors necessary for great performance. On the other hand, when those have been exhausted you’re not doing anyone a favor by hanging on to a relationship where no one is thriving. Give your employee the dignity of believing they can and will do amazing things in the right environment and help them believe that as well and it will almost always come to pass. 

By Carrie Maldonado

Carrie Maldonado, is an organizational development consultant, author, and speaker. Carrie's eclectic mix of professional interests include writing, speaking, coaching, and consulting on topics ranging from organizational behavior management to spiritual transformation in and out of the workplace. Carrie lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest with her patient and long-suffering husband and their three children.

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