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Hanging on to Problem People for Too Long


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You want to give a struggling or difficult employee the right chances to turn things around. Yet when the wish or hope you (and/or they) can change keeps them around for too long, it does more harm than good:

  • You spend too much of your valuable time/energy on them and the problems they cause.
  • Your best people suffer as they see you avoiding the inevitable, and they may leave your organization.
  • Your struggling employee is under stress from negative feedback and diminishing colleague support.

In smaller organizations, the disruption cost of holding on to a chronic low performer or problem person is particularly brutal—it’s not like the issue has anywhere to hide. In large organizations, they can create pockets of significant disruption and may even cause real nightmares. Even so, the most seasoned leaders hold on for many seemingly good reasons.

Below I’ve presented the most common ones (gleaned from three decades of my own experiences as an exec and executive coach), and suggest several steps you may want to consider.

Top 7 Reasons We Hang on to Problem People

As you read through them, consider that usually more than one is going on at the same time, and the more that are “true” for you, the harder it will be to take the necessary action. Check them out and see if any of them are familiar to you or true of a manager/leader you may know:

1. Being overly optimistic about their ability to change.

If you’re a good leader, chances are you have a fairly optimistic mindset; you see possibilities where others see only problems. Apply that positivity to chronic underperformers and it works against you. You may be saying to yourself, “Maybe if I give it more time,” or “Maybe I’m not helping them enough,” and things can go on for too long.

2. Avoiding a conflict or painful situation.

Even for some tenured, successful CEO’s I know, the prospect of having a conversation where performance or fit has become an irreconcilable or prolonged problem can be daunting. It can almost be like breaking up with a spouse or partner. People simply don’t want to do it, particularly if the person is well-liked.

3. Finding and recruiting a replacement is hard.

Whether you have to make a case internally for a replacement req, or go through an internal/external recruiting process, or you have doubts about your ability to select and hire the “right” person, finding a replacement is difficult and time-consuming.

4. Not wanting to take on their work.

Face it, we’re all super-busy, and the prospect of taking on someone’s work yourself, or assigning it to one of your team, is off-putting. Some elect to hang on to a problem person rather than deal with the additional work for the time it may take to justify and/or find a replacement.

5. Reluctance to admit a failure.

Whether you’ve recruited the person and feel it would reflect on you badly that they didn’t work out, or they’ve worked for you for a long time, and your relationship is otherwise strong, having to fire or exit someone, it can be seen as your own failure, one that can be a hard pill to swallow.

6. Belief that they are irreplaceable or holding something together.

They may have deep specialized knowledge that others lack, or manage a business, region, or set of functions that others don’t know, or they are particularly beloved by their team, it can be seductive to imagine that they are the “glue” holding things together, and without them (even despite their prolonged underperformance) things will come apart.

7. Loyalty or humanity.

Maybe you like them, they like you, or both. Perhaps you worry about their family, livelihood future, or the emotional impact of a job loss. It’s both understandable and admirable that you would care about someone on your team, although if they are wrong for the role or not delivering results for a prolonged time period, chances are good a) it’s going to have to happen, and b) their issues are a problem for their colleagues/your other people too.

What to do about it

1. Support their development for a set period of time.

Best case scenario is that the problem person can learn, grown and/or change. Usually, though, we change when WE are ready to change, and not when others think we should.  It’s good to support any potential positive change for them by offering the resources in your power to help them improve. It’s also important to set a time frame around this, and stick with it.

2. Seek advice and counsel to hold you accountable to that time frame.

Get help knowing when the time is up, and holding you to that. I’m not recommending you fire someone with a long and successful career who’s had a few bad months or quarters. Yet once a reasonable time has passed, and the problem persists, it’s time you help them find a better professional situation.

3. Help them find a better situation.

I will never forget when Carol, my boss 25 years ago, changed my life for the better by laying me off. She proactively made calls for me, made recommendations, and helped me take a great step in my career – ultimately one much better suited to my strengths. Take a lesson from Carol: if you value them, don’t dump them without support – put your own time in to help them land in a good situation, as you would someone you care about.

Recognizing your pattern of holding on too long, and helping all involved by making a positive—if difficult—change is not only good for you and your organization, but it’s the right thing to do.


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