Sometimes You Need to Shoot a Hostage so that They Know you are Serious

I was at a dinner recently with a number of business executive leaders and the comment was made that it is so hard to get rid of poor performers these days, but I have to disagree – I have never found it hard to exit a poor performer and if you do it right, they typically jump before they are pushed.  So I have learnt that when you appear to shoot a hostage – people then know you are serious. So lets explore that.

pistol-firing-bulletFirst and foremost, we should always try and build, coach and develop our people to be successful – its what leaders do, but sometimes there are those who either don’t rise to the challenge, or respond,  or by the nature of their behaviour, they just don’t fit.  Lets look at these two categories of poor performance.

The person who doesn’t hit the numbers.  We need to set very clear expectations around what is expected of them in their role, make it as black and white as possible for what the expected performance looks like – if you can, bring it back to the numbers, or what will be yes or no answer (have they done it or not) – and then get them to agree to it.

The key then is to monitor this weekly, fortnightly or monthly as part of your regular meeting cadence.  Even better, make it transparent for the whole team to see – as mutual accountability is the best kind.  You then coach and support them to try and achieve the required performance, and track how they are going.   If they aren’t improving or aren’t performing it is then clear for everyone to see.

As an example, I had a marketing person working for me who in my view had been ‘coasting’.  So as part of his task I made him responsible for delivering a market segmentation report by a certain date and made it clear what was required in that report.  At the first catch-up he hadn’t done it.  I asked why not and he provided and excuse.  I reiterated the expectation of delivery by the end of the month.  The next week he was no further ahead, and when I enquired, I got the responded that he didn’t really like research.  I checked “this was part of your role when you joined right?”  “Yes” “You have a degree in this and you had to do research to get that, so you can do it right?” “Yes”  “So I don’t really care whether you like doing it or not, you just need to allocate some time to it, and get it done”.  What happened?  He resigned.  He had been found out.

Similarly, I became responsible for a site manager who had apparently been a below average performer for some time.  He then exercised poor judgement and left his site during a construction activity with some risk during which time an incident occurred.  The conversation was – “Was this a high risk activity yes/no?” “Yes”  “As Site Manager responsible for the site should you have been there? Yes/No?” “Yes but….”,  “No buts, you exercised poor judgement and should have been there.  Next time………Agreed?  Yes!  Three weeks later another incident of poor judgement occurred.  A similar discussion ensued.  Result – he suddenly found another job in a different city.

While in these two examples (and I have many more) the person had resigned, everyone else in the office though appeared to be under no illusion that people were going to be held accountable, and that they had two choices, improve and deliver performance as expected, or leave.

So what about when someone is hitting the numbers but is just toxic in their behaviour.  This when good core values are invaluable.  Core values set the tone for how your people should behave.  Your business should have a number of these that highlight how people should act safely, as a team, as an individual and how they should represent the brand – and be in language that everyone uses every day.  For example at transport company “Always wear your PPE (Passion, Pride and Enthusiasm)”, at a construction company “Don’t take the piss”, or a professional services firm “bring your ‘A’ game” “be part of the team”, in construction “Reputation before profit” and “Safety First”, or at an automotive repair shop “its people, not just cars”.    When you have good agreed core values, which are displayed, in job descriptions and are celebrated, it becomes easy to hold people to these.

When I was in the army our values were Courage, Commitment, Comradeship and Integrity.  Similarly, whenever I removed someone for poor performance it was bought back to these values.  If someone was passing their fitness tests, was constantly late to work etc they demonstrated a lack of commitment.

I was in one organisation our values were “Sign up, Team Up, Front Up” and we had recently been through a merger.  We were delivering a joint presentation to an external stakeholder and someone from another of our business units started hacking at my statistics and saying they were wrong – quite embarrassing.  Afterwards I pulled them aside and said “what part of Team Up was that?”  Then gave guidance as to how it might be more appropriate to do that in the future (by the way the statistics weren’t wrong).   I similarly heard someone abuse a customer on the phone, so spoke them about not living our value fronting up in a way expected of an employee.

It takes courage to have the conversation, as it’s a bit subjective, they might be hurt or embarrassed, they wont like you for it, but as a leader you must do it and say that that their behaviour is unacceptable.  Core Values let you bring the behaviour back to an agreed reference-point.  Without these it is just your opinion.

The key here is two fold.  Have the conversation at the time, when it occurs – just say “excuse me can I have a word, ………..”  You don’t need to be authoritarian or superior, you just need to state what happened and how that is unacceptable and doesn’t represent our core value of xyz.  Secondly make a written note on a staff file so that there is a continual record of every time you have had these conversations.  As one of my clients says – build the war chest – so that if they do get a lawyer involved you have a history of their performance.  In my experience it seldom gets to this, and if it does the data does the talking.  When people see you doing this, they then know you are serious about the way they are expected to behave.

Build, train coach and develop your people for success as they will grow your business.  But when people aren’t performing they need to see that there is a consequence for not performing.  Research by Winsborough shows that New Zealand businesses typically build soft cultures, but our talent expect us as leaders to deal with those who aren’t performing, so have the courage to have the conversations, take notes and occasionally you might need to ‘shoot a hostage’.

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