Internalizing the growth and development of your direct reports is expected. As leaders, we make it a personal mission to groom and model our direct reports to be greater and wiser than we are. We want them to shine and flourish as they move up the ranks. So it’s no surprise that we feel responsible when they fail to perform to standard. As a leadership development coach to Directors, Vice Presidents, and Sr. Vice Presidents of large organizations, I hear the pain they feel when discussing the poor performance of a direct report.
This is for you if you’ve received feedback that you are helping a badly behaved or underperforming employee too much.
First, you empathize with direct reports on personal and professional problems. They attribute their lack of performance to any hardship the direct report faces, thus providing excuses as to why the problem exists.
Second, you accept the entire blame for the problem. Regardless of all the support and resources given to their direct report, you feel it was not enough. At this point, you feel more is needed to empower the direct report to improve their performance, even if it means doing the direct reports work for them.
Third, you become frustrated and confused, as you have done everything possible to fix the issue without success. At this point, the realization that the problem may be with the direct report starts to emerge. However, you are still reluctant to pass the responsibility for poor performance back to the direct report.
Last, you fail to understand that the problem lies with the direct report while maintaining that they could have done more to help, which is where progress stops. You will repeat the same cycle until a terrible and avoidable situation arises or your supervisor applies enough pressure to inspire action.
I’m here to help you break the cycle by providing questions to ask yourself when this problem presents itself.
Below are 8 questions to ask when assessing termination, demotion, or reassignment of a direct report.
What is the problem?
A clear and concise understanding of the real problem will help you analyze if you are addressing the correct issues. If you cannot precisely pinpoint what is wrong, how the problem affects performance, and what it costs the stakeholders involved, you do not clearly understand the actual problem.
Have you done everything you need to support them?
Typically when I ask this question of a leader, the answer is yes. The leader has empathized with the direct reports personally and professionally, offering additional time to complete tasks, providing additional training, and often reducing the direct report’s workload. In behavior matters, many leaders voluntarily receive coaching and mentorship to correct their actions and potentially harmful influence, hoping that the direct report would positively reciprocate and change without success.
Have you shared the resources necessary to help them?
Again, this is another opportunity where leaders do too much. For example, instead of a leader encouraging the direct report to use their employee resource benefits to work on mental health or receive skills gaps training, the leader enrolls with the direct report. Some leaders had chosen to provide high-level training to a direct report, when formal training from a third party or internal university was more appropriate. The point is that the leader is responsible for showing the direct report what resources are available. It is the responsibility of the direct report to utilize them.
Have they done everything they could to help themselves?
This answer is usually no. Why? The direct report is indifferent at this point and expects the coddling the leader provides. Instead of taking action to improve their performance and behavior, they remain apathetic and insist on passing the responsibility to their leadership or the rest of the team.
If the answer is no, what could they do for themselves?
You can often find this answer in the support and resources the leader has provided. The direct report often did not fully utilize the help or support made available to the best of their ability, did not initiate action at all, or quit altogether when transformation seemed too hard.
After support, resources, and time have been given, are the direct report’s results enough?
Expectations are created from the strategic and tactical plans made for the team and how the direct report in question is contributing to them. If the result is taking away from the goal of the plans, then no, the results are not good enough. If the results show marked improvement and seem to improve significantly with more time, then maybe. If the results contribute to the team’s overall strategic and tactical plan, then yes. One must include the production, morale, and fiscal effect of their work and presence on the team and its goals.
What would it cost you, the team, and the employee if nothing changed?
The perception that a leader cannot make complex decisions based on the needs of the overall goals and health of the team will erode their reputation and eventually their potential advancement. It may even cost the leader their job. Team morale will suffer, resulting in a systematic reduction of productivity and performance, which makes goal achievement more difficult. Last, the direct report is not advanced to a higher level and is regarded as a poor performer, resulting in worse behavior and declined productivity and performance.
Is the cost worth it?
Assessing the cost of keeping underperforming or badly behaved direct report should give you a clear answer of whether it’s time to terminate, demote, or reassign.
It makes sense that deciding to terminate, demote, or reassign is not an easy one to make. The mental and financial impact on the direct report and family could be devastating. The team may have close relationships that could affect the group’s morale. No one wants to be the executioner.
This major decision can also be the nudge the direct report needed to live out a dream, reduce stress, improve broken relationships, and grow as a professional and a person. Terminating, demoting, or reassigning a direct report doesn’t have to be the end of the world; instead, it could be the beginning of a long era of high morale, team cohesion, and goal achievements.