The Tough Stuff of Leading ... Difficult Team members must join or be removed.
Leaders generally experience a rhythm to their roles, learning of challenges, developing teams and solutions, resolving issues and celebrating the results. This tends to be the day-to-day experience of most leaders. Yet there are times when we are either put into a broken team or a team member is given to us and we need to take hard, drastic steps to manage them, or we, and those we lead, will be ineffective. While every team member deserves the opportunity to shine and be successful, some simply cannot produce what is needed for the project or team to be successful. There are two ends of the spectrum: those who cannot and those who will not.
Incompetence. Those who cannot.
This situation often happens because someone was placed in your team by another manager or executive. You are asked to hold on to this person whilst they wait for a new role. Or another manager has a need for team cost reduction, and this person is singled out as unnecessary. Your HR team seeks a place or role for this individual and your team becomes the landing zone for someone who was displaced from a former role. Neither of these situations is helpful for a team, but they are a part of corporate and organizational life.
The challenge with this person becomes one of incompetence in the role. I recall one individual who sent out customer information from one company to another company simply because of a lack of attention to serious details. That individual ‘cut and pasted’ information because it was the easy way out. He had been placed into my team with a view to a much larger job and he simply did not take the role seriously. He had no skills within the domain of the team, and though he talked a good game, he accomplished very little.
After about six months with him on the team, I knew he had to go. The rest of the team was suffering because of this individual and they were looking to me to resolve the matter. In the life of a leader, this crisis must be resolved or your team will lose respect for your skills. Your credibility will erode.
All professionals know the route that is taken when you’re going to remove them from the team, and they prepare accordingly. They get their own stack of documents and accolades from various people to validate their need to stay on the team. It is not an easy task to remove them. Leaders at this stage must build a very thorough coalition with HR and other executive leadership to ensure the ‘I’s have been dotted and the ‘t’s have been crossed. Then a careful plan must be put in place and executed.
I worked with the HR team and appropriate executives to state very clearly that this individual would have xx number of months to improve his skills for the team, or he would be gone. Expectations were set and I carefully articulated the requirements to him. Face-to-face is best, and this is that moment of managerial courage we must all face, acknowledging, whether we like it or not, this individual’s family and his whole life will be upset by his departure. But that cannot stop us as leaders. Compassion is balanced with realism.
Within three months I conducted a painstakingly careful performance review demonstrating this individual’s failures in the role. It was nothing personal, but it was clear and straightforward. One of the challenges we face as leaders is how our emotions get the best of us when we’ve been put in an awkward spot by an incompetent member. I had to overcome my anger to be professional and effective. I told him he had a few more months to improve, and if he did not, his employment was over. He said he understood and signed off on the plan.
Ultimately, we demonstrated that he was not able to complete the work required, and thus he had to move on. He knew he was incapable of doing the job, and so were we. In the end, he found something that matched his skills at another company. It was a tough situation, but keeping him on the team would have further destroyed morale and caused others to work harder to pick up the slack he left through incompetence.