When “the wrong person” has to go

Let’s go back to my personal experience with being the wrong person. What hurt the most was when my boss’s boss admitted in my exit interview a feeling two years before that I was the wrong person for the role. I would have much preferred a courageous but tough decision to the frustration of two ill-fitting years.

Firing is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. In Servant Empowered Leadership, Don Page quotes a statement from the Tribunal of the Diocese of Evansville, Indiana that leaders “care too much about people to let them perform at less than their level best.” I’ve blogged before about how managers should love and care for their staff, and it goes way beyond assuring employment. Have you considered that keeping a person in a job might be the least-caring thing you can do? That’s a hard thing to suggest in this economy.

What should set an organization like ours apart from many businesses is not that we don’t let people go; it’s how we let people go. First, we look them in the eye. As Steven Sample says “a man has to shoot his own horse.” He pointed out that president Nixon used to get someone else to tell a staff member he’d been fired. I remember the day I had to let a volunteer go. It was not a good situation, and I could easily have found business to do while security was escorting him to the exit. I chose to be there to show concern for him. Saying it wasn’t easy is an understatement. There was no way to avoid him at church! We had at least one followup conversation as he struggled to understand the reasons for my decision.

If caring for our staff means getting to know their families and situation outside of the office, we should show the same concern for their families and their unique situation as we transition them out of a job. We should show individualization with our approach to each one. We should go above and beyond in providing for their needs. I know there are laws that govern these things, but too often Christians use the laws as an excuse to do the minimum rather than the maximum. I think if a firing is done right, that staff person could one day become our biggest advocate. Seems crazy, but I’ve seen it happen in time.

Finally, remember that letting an underperforming or distracting team member go is a win for the others on your team. Not only do they see that you mean what you say about performance, but they know that your time has now been freed up to better support them. The wrong person takes huge amounts of management time and resources.

As Christian leaders, let’s set the bar high for our staff, and let’s set the bar high for our own performance as managers. Let’s show courage and concern to those who are performing and to those who are not.

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When “the wrong person” is your fault

I was just reading Acts 9, where Ananias pushes back on God’s request for him to go and lay hands on Saul. He basically tells God that Saul is clearly the wrong guy, and he strongly implies that he doesn’t want to work with him. He sounds like any number of managers I’ve met. Yet God responds,

Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel.

To put it in Jim Collins’ language, Saul is the right person for this particular seat on God’s bus. It’s not because he shows any potential for the role, though he proves to have an amazing resume for the job. Saul is simply the wrong guy, and then God turns him around, and he’s the right guy. How on earth do we apply traditional hiring, development and firing principles when God is in the business of makeovers and repentances?

That’s the setting for my post today. When the wrong person is in a job, or there’s a staff member who just can’t find the right assignment, what should our organizational response be? And what should we be doing as leaders in the organization?

When it comes to staff, I think parachurch agencies have to find the right middle ground. We should not be as quick to fire as (many) businesses, whose business model doesn’t allow the patience to retool and develop their staff. We also should not be too slow to fire when firing is warranted. I think it’s safe to say most Christian organizations tend more to the latter fault. We give people “one more chance” as they continue to gush their contamination throughout our departments and organization.

The question we need to be asking is whether the person is wrong or the role is wrong. I have seen many people who are wrong for one role — indeed poisoning those around them — take a completely different tack and find a role they flourish in. Perhaps my own experience has shaped my approach to this issue. Three or four times in recent years, I have taken a risk on someone with bad performance appraisals and offered them a new position that I had a hunch would work out for them. Taking them out of the circumstances that had exposed their weaknesses and playing instead to their strengths made all the difference.

These cases give me incredible satisfaction. Why? Because someone did the same for me. While I trained for graphic design and worked in that field for 8-9 years, I’m a long way from my major today. I’ve changed careers several times in Wycliffe. What prompted my first big career change was a miserable couple of years in a bad role. As I lost trust with my boss, my discontent turned to frustration and depression. I look back on those years as a low point in my management career and in my followership career. I was poison in that department. It’s taken a while, but I now point fingers at myself before I point them at my circumstances or my boss.

I think that’s the first part of the answer: as an organization or as a manager, we should point fingers at ourselves first. I’m reminded of three points Chip and Dan Heath made in Switch about pursuing change in an organization. In short, they expose our tendency as leaders to fault the other person when change isn’t going well.

  • What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. Have we been clear in our instructions? Have we been clear in communicating expectations? Have we provided the training this person needs?
  • What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. Have we provided good performance management, support, encouragement and care for a staff member who is dry emotionally? Is the pace of change beyond what he can handle? Are we leading by force or engaging him in the vision of where we’re going?
  • What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.

The Heaths quote Stanford psychologist Lee Ross’s Fundamental Attribution Error: a deeply seated tendency “to attribute others’ behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in” (while generously doing the opposite with our own behavior).

So, leaders, when someone on your team is wrong for the job, take a look at yourself and the situation you have put them in. It may well be that the fault lies in your court.

You’ll notice my postings have really slowed down in recent weeks. That’s because thoughts on this topic don’t come readily to me. When I said I wanted to wrestle through these issues, I meant it. So I welcome your thoughts. Agree? Disagree? Am I being too naive? Want to push back? Join the discussion!

Romans 12 – love your team

9 Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. 10 Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other….

13 When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality….

15 Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep.

My intern did a survey this summer of a lot of leaders in our office. One of the questions he asked was what they considered their leadership strengths. While a number named characteristics traditionally thought of as “strong and bold” — visionary, decisive and strategic thinking, for instance — I was happy with the number of times some “alternative” characteristics came up: listening, serving, understanding context and caring for their team. I’m not sure how many business schools or leadership courses emphasize that last one.

I think there are two problematic areas in leadership today related to this topic. First, the “old school” line of thought is that leaders should distance themselves from their teams. It’s built on the idea that you can’t uphold the discipline necessary in the manager-subordinate relationship if you let your co-workers become your friends. I get it. I know I’m making it more difficult for myself, but I just can’t keep that distance. For one, it compartmentalizes my life too much. I pour a good portion of my life into my teams. And two, I think the problems outweigh the benefits. For a team to be successful, Patrick Lencioni says in 3 Signs of a Miserable Job, the manager needs to know each team member. If this is true in a for-profit context, how much more should it be true in a Christian ministry context? Managers should know when their staff members are weeping inside and when they’re jumping up and down at home. Managers should know when they’re in need.

The other major problem is that managers fake care for their teams. The trend right now is to offer all kinds of flex time and benefits for employees, making the corporation feel more socially conscious and family-oriented. Managers are encouraged to empower their teams and give them voice. Former Yahoo exec Tim Sanders has build a speaking tour on the principle of love being the “Killer App.” But greater benefits, social consciousness, family orientation and empowerment don’t necessarily equate with love. How many managers really love their staff members? What does that look like?

Loving your team means all your actions honor the people you work with. It means you’re a developer of people. It means you hold them to high standards. For instance, you don’t tolerate cutting corners, and you don’t allow gossip to undermine the team. And it means when you fire someone — because you love them too much to let them underperform or break the rules — or have to lay someone off, you bend over backwards to care for them and make sure they land on their feet.

It means taking delight in honoring your team. The starting point is that in success, you’re a window, pointing to the team’s contribution and in failure, you’re a mirror, taking credit for your own part in the mistakes. It goes to awards, too. I read recently in The 52nd Floor how every time an award is given, half of your team are thinking of another team member who deserved it more, and the other half think they’re that person. The only people that feel good about an award are the boss and the recipient, and both are often happy for sinful reasons!

I think to delight in honoring someone has to include individualization. Every person on your team has a different way of feeling appreciated. When you notice a person’s “love language” and show appreciation in the language that speaks to them — which might not include public praise — I think they feel known, and they feel honored. When you ask them their favorite food for a party and then use that to celebrate a milestone, they feel known and honored.

Loving your team means you set up a system to identify needs, because most people are too proud to tell you, and then a system to help meet those needs. A lot of people are struggling right now, but they put on a face of professionalism when they come to work. Most colleagues will never know the pain they’re in. So, how can we allow people to share their need? How can we allow an intermediate to tactfully alert others to our needs? And how can a manager participate in meeting those needs?

Loving your team means you practice hospitality. Instead of keeping the distance, invite them into your life and into your home. Hospitality is actually one of the qualifications of a church elder (1 Timothy 3:2). I think it should be a mark for any ministry leader.

And I think that’s the point here. Ministries should be able to become more professional without having to copy the cutthroat measures of the corporate world. Love should be the mark of any leader in a ministry setting. And I think Tim Sanders has one thing right: the business world would be a better place if they copied the ministry world a little more. I suspect they’d even find that love is profitable.