Management In Real Life

To Fix or Fire—That is the Question
by: Kevin Herring

Can people change? Are they doomed to repeat their mistakes? Should companies bother to spend time and money to help them?

I get asked these questions a lot by CEOs debating whether to hire me to “fix” a key employee while vacillating between firing and coaching choices. That’s what happened when one CEO asked me to coach one of his senior leaders who was good technically, but who couldn't pull a team together and get the job done. The CEO went back and forth trying to decide what to do, but ultimately asked me to work with him. Before we could get started, I got a surprise email from the CEO who said he decided to demote the leader, instead. When I asked why he changed his mind, the CEO simply said he didn’t believe the person could change, but he couldn’t afford to lose the employee’s technical skills and he wasn’t ready to throw him out the door.

Throwing in the towel

This wasn’t the first time I had seen leaders give up on key staff, and it wasn’t the last. In my experience, leaders usually give up on people for one or more of four reasons. One is they don’t want to get into the messy business of giving difficult feedback and dealing with the emotional fallout that can come from it. Okay, so that applies to almost all of us. But, it’s a major deterrent to addressing the problem.

A second reason is they just want the problem to go away as quickly as possible. They’re tired of dealing with it and the damage it has created, and they get impatient to make it stop—something we can all relate to.

Another reason they give up is they don’t know how to help the person, or know how anyone else could do it, so it seems like a waste to spend money trying. If there’s no clear path forward, why pretend there is?

Finally, leaders simply don’t believe someone can change that much when the person has what they see as a “big” problem. Even if they understand how to help the person, they think it’s unreasonable to expect someone to make such a huge change.

The comeback

Despite all the negatives, I’ve seen very few managers who haven’t made the grade after getting some good feedback and direction on how to improve. In fact, in almost every case where the CEO was convinced a person couldn’t change—but to be fair, gave coaching a try—the manager succeeded: bullies stopped bullying, isolationists started collaborating, autocratic managers began supporting employee innovations, weak managers became stronger leaders, and some created work relationship breakthroughs.

A matter of will

Success has been mostly a matter of willingness. Once people recognized they needed to change, and had some idea how to do it, they took the challenge seriously and gave it their best shot. With guidance, support, continued feedback, and persistence, some have made fairly dramatic changes.

So, can people change? In my experience, absolutely! Given the help they need and a chance to do it, most can make amazing changes. Most of us want to grow—we want to keep getting better. Nobody has it all figured out. We aren’t always aware that we need to make particular changes, and we don’t always know what to do about it when we are. All we need is a little guidance and we’ll work at it. And, from what I’ve seen, instead of giving up on talented people, investing in them can yield a tremendous payoff.

Personal willingness is a powerful driver for change. And, willingness is a trait of humble people. Humble people don’t think they’ve “arrived” when they get promoted. They don’t attribute their success to being smarter than everyone else or having all the skills. They understand that none of us knows everything or is good at everything. They get that success is about constantly learning and putting that learning into practice. When reasonably humble people recognize their current behaviors are less effective than they could be, they want to learn and improve. A good coach can help those who are initially resistant to feedback to reconsider it and recognize value in using it to be better.

Even though we find it easy to admire and cheer on athletes who claw their way back from what fans consider an early end to a career, we sometimes forget that sports doesn’t have a monopoly on people with strong will and the ability to learn and grow. Those people exist in companies everywhere. Given the chance, they’ll do the same in your company.

Send an email and let me know what you learn from your experiences. I would love to hear from you!

Kevin Herring

Kevin Herring is co-author of 'Practical Guide for Internal Consultants', and President of Ascent Management Consulting, Ltd., a firm specializing in performance turnarounds of work groups and business units.
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