The Sword – Discernment and Swift Action

This morning, I was reading Common Purpose: How Great Leaders Get Organizations to Achieve the Extraordinary. The author, Joel Kurtzman, quoted Ramit Varma, cofounder of Revolution Prep, a dymanic, successful education company, saying that, when dissent is the manifestation of a perpetually negative mind . . . “You must be brutal and quick. When someone doesn’t work out, you have to get rid of them. And you have to do it fast. If they don’t uphold your values and vision, if they don’t come around to your goals, they can do real damage.”

I am not comfortable with this.

And also, I see it is true, and essential.

It makes sense to accept the truth of it, and also to accept that it must always remain an uncomfortable truth.

On one hand, far too many companies and organizations and people in leadership positions in this country have become comfortable being brutal. This leads to fear in the workplace, which destroys the quality of our lives and quality of work and results. “Eliminate Fear in the Workplace” was #8 of Deming’s 14 points of Total Quality Management, and, in my view, the most important.

And on the other hand,  far too many organizations and people in leadership positions have ducked their heads and avoided necessary clarification and action. especially when that action means ending a business relationship. Most companies and organization live with perpetual discomfort, stress, and confusion. This perpetuates hassle and waste, another source of reduced quality of life, products, and services.

Act Decisively to Create and Maintain Synergy

It is simply true that success requires synergy. And synergy requires both parties acting with mutual respect and with common goals.

It is a leader’s responsibility to see with clarity.

It is a leader’s responsibility to stop damage to an organization, just as it is a surgeon’s responsibility to stop bleeding.

In a well-run organization, emergency surgery is rare. But, in any organization or organism, when emergency surgery is necessary, it should be done immediately, and done well. That’s basic and definitional. Emergency means immediate action is required. And surgery must always be done well; sloppy surgery leads to disease and death.

Symbolically, such actions are represented by the Sword. In society, it is Athena’s Sword of Justice. The Sword is the symbol of mind, clarity, and decisiveness. The Sword – or scalpel – cuts quickly and precisely.

Why must we act with swift precision at these times? To save lives and prevent illness and suffering.

That’s obvious in the medical emergency room. It is equally true in the business emergency. If a business is bleeding red ink or losing employees or morale or productivity because there is a conflict at the executive level, it must be resolved swiftly. If attempts to resolve it with the person do not work out quickly, then it may be best to let that person go. And, if so, the surgery is best done quickly and cleanly. And the same truth scales down all the way to the small shop and the individual worker.

And that is usually the best for everyone involved.

When win-win is not possible, no deal is the best option. Moving to it directly helps everyone.

Firing Should Happen Rarely

But let’s be clear. Firing should happen rarely. Why? For two reasons:

  • Respectful dissent is essential to organizational success. We need eveyrone in the company coming up with better and better ideas all the time. We need people to promote their ideas, and challenge ours. Leaders destroy an organization by cultivatign fear and creating yes-men under them. If we fire people too quickly, we quash dissent.
  • Good hiring prevents firing. If we make the decision to hire well at the beginning, then we rarely need to fire anyone. So, every time we let someone go – and when someone leaves as a result of a conflict in the business, it is important to perform a root cause analysis and learn how to prevent such events. In most cases, that will mean changing hiring practices or changing ourselves and our own fundamental attitudes. By and large, leaders create the conflicts and problems within their organizations.

Firing Should Be Done Well

If firing, done well, helps everyone, that means that, when a leader fires someone and does it well, the person he fires is better off. Or, at least, every effort is done to create the possibility that the person being fired is better off.

Firing might be compared to the complicated surgery of separating Siamese twins. The goal is two healthy children. But, sometimes, even doing our best, only one child can survive.

As leaders of organizations, our first responsibility is the health and success of the organization or company we lead.

But, higher than that, as human beings, our first responsibility is “First, do no harm.” So we also act with concern for the person who is leaving the organization.

I have been fired, and it was healthy for me.  I couldn’t grow in that organization. So it made sense that the leader of the organization insist that I be transplanted somewhere else.

In a garden, transplanting creates shock. But if the plant being moved survives the transition and moves to a better place – more sun, bigger pot, or the freedom of the yard with deep earth, then that plant is better off.

So, when firing, do not cast away weeds. People are not weeds. Transplant what does not work. Nourish the person who is leaving, and, when possible, encourage them to find a place that they can grow.

2 Responses to “The Sword – Discernment and Swift Action”

  1. PaulR says:

    Good post, but how does one do necessary layoffs in an economic downturn like the current one? What if all the best forecasts don’t predict the fall-off in business and your choice as manager or owner is layoffs or going out of business?

    I’ve seen two recent handling of layoffs. One involved a guy who wasn’t doing the job he was hired to do in a small startup–small enough so he couldn’t move to a new job without displacing someone else. However his boss using his contacts got him interview offers. Another case involved three people laid off–of whom two were let go because of changing priorities and both those guys had been interested in leaving, but the third person had a history of taking credit for other people’s work and it took three years to figure out that he wasn’t producing and other people had stopped cooperating with him.

    One serious problem with the second organization is that it did NOT announce the layoffs in a straightforward manner, and remaining staff ended up being afraid and uncertain. (I winced.)

  2. admin says:

    Paul – thank you – you raise several good issues here.

    1. How do we do necessary layoffs?

    I recommend Chapter 16, “Failure, Employee or Company” of my book Perfect Solutions for Difficult Employee Situations. It’s a quick read – just 12 pages, and it covers the best way to handle layoffs and even firings.

    2. You raise an implicit issue of distinguishing between layofs and termination for cause.

    I’m talking about the underlying reality. Sometimes, we choose a layoff legally, so the person can get unemployment benefits, but there is really termination for cause going on. If the position will be open for someone else to fill, or the role will be done by someone else, this is a termination for cause, not a layoff. Now, the cause may not be the employee. Most of the time, in fact, it isn’t. Richard Nelson Bolles, the job-hunting guru of What Color is Your Parachute fame, was fired eight times. And he was probably a very good worker! The cause is often a failure on the employer’s part, such as not defining the job well, hiring the wrong person, or not communicating well and supporting the employee. But if that situation goes to far, separation is the only option.

    The first case you cite as a layoff is actually this type of termination for cause. What is most important is an apology! It must be carefully phrased to avoid legal exposure, however. The boss’s effort to get the employee interviews is excellent.

    3. Not knowing what’s going on and waiting too long

    The major issue in the second case is that the company was not in touch with the reality of what is going on in the team. This is a recipe for disaster. If the situation had been managed earlier, two good people might have wanted to stay and been able to stay. And whatever didn’t work out that caused the shift in priorities might have worked out. This links back to the central theme of the blog you commented on, “The Sword – Discernment and Swift Action.”

    4. Transparency

    It is important to understand that everyone in a company is a stakeholder affected by corporate decisions such as terminations and layoffs. Even a friendly departure is significant to everyone. When someone leaves, we want a clear, true, and unintrusive statement, such as “she left to pursue personal goals” or “we thought he was excellent, but not a fit for the position.” We need equal transparency and care in presenting firings and layoffs. If a layoff is done right – and I’ve helped a client do this – the team that remains is stronger after the layoff than before.

    5. Reliance on predictions

    Paul, you ask “What if all the best forecasts don’t predict the fall-off in business”? This is a good question. The key is that the business leaders are thinking inside the box. They are only considering options they have ways of forecasting. They ahve not stepped back to the strategic level and asked, “What are all the logical possibilities? Are we ready for anything?” This is a short exercise – unlikely possibilities are not worth a lot of time. But it is an essential one if we want our team to trust our leadership. We should be ready to lead our team even when reality catches us blindsided – especially these days.

    True leadership comes from within, and does not rely completely on external techniques such as forecasting.

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