Management Myth #6: I Can Save Everyone

“Everyone is worth saving. Everyone is worth saving.” Jimmy was muttering under his breath as he walked into my office. “Hi, Steve. I’m here for our one-on-one. I have a real problem.”

“OK, let’s hear it.”

“Frieda is a problem in my group.”

“Jimmy, we have discussed Frieda before. I thought you were going to put her on a get-well plan last week?”

“But, Steve, everyone is worth saving!”

“Jimmy, listen to me. It’s time to do a little addition. How many people do you have in your group?”

“Eight.”

“And how much time do you have to spend with them in a week?”

“About twelve hours total. That’s it.”

“How much time have you spent with each of them this past week?”

“Um, I have to think.” Jimmy spent a few seconds thinking. Then he stopped and paled. “I haven’t spent time with anyone except Frieda.”

“So, you have spent all of your time with the person who is delivering the least, right?” Jimmy nodded.

“And none of your time with the people who deliver the most, right?”

Jimmy nodded again.

“Does that sound reasonable to you?”

Jimmy slowly shook his head.

“So why do you think you can save everyone? Why do you think everyone is worth saving?”

Jimmy sighed. “Steve, Frieda is a nice person.”

Steve agreed and nodded.

“She needs a job.”

Steve cocked his head to the side.

“Jimmy, we are not running a charity. Frieda does need a job, but she doesn’t need a job from us.”

“Steve, I don’t know what to do.”

“Jimmy, you do know what to do; we’ve discussed it. You don’t want to let Frieda go because you think you will be a bad guy, and it goes against your personal values. I have offered to help you, and you’ve turned me down. Twice. Now, you either let me help you today, or I’ll do it myself. You came in here muttering ‘Everyone is worth saving’ as if you were going to convince me. You are not going to convince me.

“But I have called Tranh over at our competitor. He is interested in Frieda’s resume. He knows that we’ve had trouble with her, and he’s still interested. Now, are you going to start the get-well plan or am I?”

Why Can’t You Save Everyone?

There are any number of reasons employees don’t work out in an organization. Often, it’s a cultural fit problem you didn’t catch during the interview. But even if it’s not cultural fit, if you’ve provided honest and open feedback and the employee can’t or won’t change, it’s up to the manager, or the self-managing team, to help the employee move on. You might help an employee move to another group that’s a better fit if you have a sufficiently large organization. But you might have to help someone leave the company altogether.

Why Help an Employee Leave Your Team?

When someone isn’t working out, that person might “unjell” the entire team, the person might prevent the project from making progress technically, or the person might not do any work. I’ve seen all three of these problems.

In this case, Frieda was an unjeller. When she attempted to participate in a meeting, she managed to push people farther apart.

For example, one problem Frieda’s team was trying to solve was scheduling lab time. With Frieda, the team was unable to brainstorm solutions and come to a decision. First, team members were unable to stick to their timebox for generating ideas, because during the brainstorming, Frieda wanted to discuss the solutions, even when the designated facilitator explained they were generating possibilities.

Once the team moved to eliminating ideas and discussing just some of the ideas, Frieda kept returning to ideas they had eliminated. “But those were good ideas,” she protested. The facilitator decided to discuss Frieda’s meeting behavior with her. “Frieda, if you can’t stick with our process, I want you to leave the meeting.”

“But I have to use the lab, too.”

“But we all agreed we were done generating ideas. It’s time for us to discuss these ideas.”

“But I like that idea. I don’t care if I agreed before. I like that idea now.”

One of the other meeting participants said, “I’m leaving. This meeting is a waste of my time.” Two of the other three people left also.

Frieda had exhibited meeting behavior like this before. Her colleagues were no longer willing to work with her again for problem solving.

When a team has a problem-solving meeting, and team members can’t solve a problem because of one person, they have to solve the team membership problem first.

You Are Fair and Nice to the Entire Team

Jimmy, the manager, was concerned about being “nice” to Frieda. He’d temporarily forgotten the rest of the team. He felt has if he wasn’t fair to Frieda, but the real problem is that he was beyond fair to Frieda—but he wasn’t fair to the rest of the team.

By managing team membership, you might not feel as if you are fair to the person you are helping to leave, but you are. And, you are being fair to the rest of the team. Your team’s members might be feeling many things: They may feel betrayed for the lack of your attention or for the amount of attention you are spending on the employee who is not working out. Those team members might be wondering if you can even see the problems. Or they might be thinking you don’t care. Any number of ideas or feelings are going through their heads, and not many of them are kind to you.

The faster you manage the issues around an unjeller, or any other team membership problem, the faster the team will thank you. Normally, the way a manager will help the team is by meta-coaching or meta-feedback, helping the team members learn to coach or learn to give feedback themselves. But if the problem is too big for team members to handle by themselves, the manager has to manage it.

When you don’t try to save someone for too long, when you help an employee move out of a team—especially one who is an unjeller like Frieda—you help the team. Team members will become more energized, happier, and freer. And their output will increase. Why? Because the unjeller is not preventing them from collaborating.

Luck Helps

You want to help an employee exit gracefully. If you are part of a large organization, and there is another place for your employee, help your employee transfer. But don’t make your headache someone else’s headache. I’ve interviewed people who had twenty years of the same year of experience because their managers handed them off and the company was large enough. No manager ever took the courageous effort of helping the employee out the door.

If you are lucky, and you have checked with your colleagues at your competitors, you might be able to find a place for your employee at another organization. Even if you cannot, help your employee leave.

Not every employee is salvageable at your organization. It’s almost always a case of cultural fit. You can prevent these problems by discovering them during hiring. But if you don’t discover them during hiring, make sure you don’t let these problems fester. As soon as you discover them, provide the employee feedback. If that doesn’t work, help your problem employee out the door. Your headaches will go away, and your team will thank you.

© 2012 Johanna Rothman. This article was originally published on Techwell.com. Like this article? Read the next one in the series: Management Myth #7: I am Too Valuable to Take a Vacation.

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