Unfortunately, one of the biggest sins I see in performance management is avoidance. Usually, we’re good at recognizing problem performers. We’re just terrible in dealing with them.

There all sorts of reasons we avoid dealing with them–all bad. They include:

  • Dealing with problem performers takes a lot of time.
  • Dealing with problem performers is no fun–for both the manager and the problem performer.
  • Dealing with problem performers creates stressful, sometimes confrontive situations. Most people tend to avoid these.

But to me, the ultimate betrayal of trust, the ultimate form of disrespect of an individual is not to deal with the problem performer head on. This form of managerial behavior is absolutely unacceptable.

Recently I wrote, Solve Your Problem Before I Have To Solve Mine. I talked about my problem performer, Ron.

In that situation, I got impatient and frustrated, and stopped trying to deal with Ron about his problem performance. Instead, I started managing around him, giving him meaningless assignments and doing everything I could to avoid addressing these performance issues with Ron.

I not only betrayed my responsibility to my manager, my team and the organization, but I betrayed my responsibility to Ron.

Ron was a bad performer. He wasn’t a bad guy. He had been an outstanding performer in the past. He was in the wrong job.

Ron was a smart guy, he knew he wasn’t performing as he should. He was proud, he wanted to perform or he wanted to move into a role where he could perform. He wanted to contribute and was frustrated by his inability to do so. Finally, he was frightened, because I, his manager, was ignoring and avoiding him, rather than addressing the issues head on.

I had given up on him. I had disrespected him, by not giving him the chance, by avoiding doing the right thing, by not having the respect and courage to fire him, if we couldn’t get his performance to an acceptable level.

I tend to believe most people, at least deep down, are like Ron. They better be smart people, or you had no business hiring them in the first place. I believe most people are proud, they want to do the right thing, they want to perform, they want to contribute, they want to be successful. I’m one who believes in the basic goodness of people. Finally, I believe people want to be respected and to be respectful.

Yes, there are a few clueless, a few jerks, but if you were foolish enough to hire them, then that’s your problem.

In general, however, people want to perform. But sometimes they can’t. They may have skills deficiencies that just can be fixed in the time needed, they may attitudes, behaviors, or personal attributes that may just be wrong for the role in which they are expected to perform. They may just be in the wrong job.

Our responsibility, as leaders, is to work with all our people, maximizing their performance. Working with A’s is a pleasure. B’s too, because sometimes you see so much progress. C’s starts getting a little dicey–our avoidance mechanisms start kicking in.

And non performers, well too often managers go into full avoidance. They don’t address the individual, they don’t engage them. They work around them, ignore them, avoid them—as long as they can.

Dealing with problem performers is not fun, it takes time. Putting them on a performance improvement plan is even more of a hassle. So, too often, we ignore and avoid.

We don’t demonstrate enough respect for the individual to engage them in the discussions that are critical to them and to our organization.

Eventually, we get to the point where we can no longer ignore an avoid.

Here’s where I see the ultimate act of management cowardice. Rather than having the respect and courage to go through the process to fire the person, we go through the despicable act of “laying the person off.”

We go to the problem performer, saying, “We are restructuring and your role is no longer needed, I’m so sorry, here’s your package.” Or we say, “Times are tough, we have to downsize, and unfortunately we have to let you go. I’m so sorry, here’s your package.”

Sheer cowardice and poor corporate stewardship!

We cheat the person of the opportunity to understand the real reasons he no longer has a job. We cheat them of the opportunity to understand why they didn’t fit and where they might be more successful and have greater success. We cheat them of the opportunity to learn and improve. As a result, without that understanding, they go to the next job, with no insight about whether it might be a good fit. Consequently, they may wander from job to job, wanting to contribute, wanting to be successful, but having managers who are cowards and won’t help them learn.

Somehow, we think poor performers don’t want to learn and improve. We think they are lazy and just don’t want to do the work.

I don’t know that I’ve ever met someone who has said, “I don’t want to be successful.” More often their lack of success is because they in the wrong role, they may not know it, they may not know what a “right” role might be. As managers we must have both the compassion and respect to help them learn and help them find success. If necessary, we must have the respect to fire them, in the process taking the time to help them learn, help them move forward, help them find success.

People deserve feedback, compassion, and respect. Even if the demonstration of these is telling them they won’t make it in the job and you are going to have to terminate them. At least in that experience, they have the opportunity to learn. To do an assessment, perhaps to get help, so they can find a role where they can contribute and be successful.

Being a leader means having personal courage. It means doing the right thing by everyone, not just your favorites or the top performers. As leaders we want to be respected, we earn that by showing respect.

Do you respect yourself and your people enough to be straight and honest with them—regardless how difficult the discussion?

Do you respect your people enough to fire them if that is the right thing to do–for the person and the organization?

Leaders don’t hide, they don’t practice avoidance, they have courage, they have high expectations of themselves and their teams.

Are you a leader?