Before You Fire Him: Try This First!

When Terra (not her real name) called me, she was absolutely at her wit’s end.

Michael, her fairly new, young, and salaried director seemed to think that being “salaried” meant enormous flexibility - like showing up for work whenever he felt like it. He was chronically late for meetings as well—even meetings with her!

She was baffled by his work ethic.

She’d always worked long and hard for everything that mattered, and here was this young guy, making a good salary, blowing her off and being a terrible role model for staff to boot!

What’s worse was that it had taken her a long time to find Michael; she had such high hopes for him and the role he’d play in the company’s continued success. He was so qualified, so right, so promising, and now . . . so disappointing.

By the time Terra called me she was ready to fire him, but wondered: Did I have any thoughts or suggestions?

First I asked her if she had been clear about her time expectations for Michael. Did she let him know the impact on her when he was chronically late or took off without telling a soul of his whereabouts? No, not really, she responded.

Then I asked if she wanted to try a constructive communication technique before she gave Michael a written warning. It’s like following a good recipe, I told her: nearly foolproof if you stick to the guidelines.

How to Shift a Difficult Conversation From Blame to Behavior Change 

  • Begin with just the facts. State ONE specific and recent behavior you want to change. (If you’re at the boiling point, you will need to practice impulse control and narrow it down to a single example.)
  • Explain the impact on you. Are you angry, frustrated, worried, disappointed? Unless the person receives specific feedback on their behavior, they won’t understand the gap between intention and impact, and therefore won’t have the opportunity to change their behavior.
  • Avoid You! blaming statements. They’re so tempting—especially when you’re angry (i.e., “You are thoughtless, immature and lazy.”). However, blaming statements only serve to make the other person defensive.
  • Make your request. And use that word, too. Tell the person exactly what you want to see changed.
  • Get agreement. This is critical. Don’t order them to do what you say and then walk away. You need their buy-in; you also need to learn if there are any issues you don’t know.
  • Don’t debate. If they resist and hurl a litany of protests at you, don’t engage. Repeat your request and ask for agreement. And if necessary, do it again, and again.

Before Terra sat down with Michael, she and I role-played. She was quite angry and kept slipping away from the facts and into blaming statements like, “He has a terrible work ethic. He doesn’t care about his work.” However, when the time came for them to meet, she was entirely surprised by how the conversation went.

Most of Us Want the Opportunity to Change

Terra began by describing Michael’s chronic lateness, and how unhappy and frustrated she was with his behavior. She said she was genuinely worried that he was not able to fulfill his responsibilities.

Then she made her requests specific: arrive at our meetings on time, and let me know if you aren’t coming in at the regular time—and why. She then asked if he could and would agree to these terms. He turned pale and looked visibly shaken. At first she thought he was angry. But in fact, he was mortified and embarrassed.

He said that he really liked his job and appreciated the chance to work for her. He valued her trust in him and said he would probably have fired someone like him by now. He was very grateful she hadn’t – yet.

He did, indeed, take the words right out of her mouth. Words that, thankfully, she never had to say to him.

But the story didn’t end here – for either of them. Because they both had work to do.

It Takes Two to Successfully Change Behavior

Michael arrived on time and was perfect with his communication – for a while. Then he began slipping backward, 5 or 10 minutes late here and there. Terra wasn’t used to giving positive feedback to motivate positive change. In fact, she was so busy that she rarely provided feedback to anyone, and when she did, it was generally critical

Not a recipe for success…

Successful feedback follows a 5:1 ratio rule. (Read Feedback: The Most Undervalued EQ Skill.)

Terra needed to learn and practice a new set of behaviors to become a more effective leader. And she did.

As for Michael: It turns out he had a lot going on at home that was distracting him. Turns out that Terra’s new constructive and positive feedback was beneficial to both his personal and professional life.

Turns out that he was, indeed, the right person for the position at that point in time. And when Michael did move on, it wasn’t because he couldn’t fulfill his salaried obligations. In fact, he thanked Terra profusely for the skills she’d taught him. And Terra, in return, was now gratefully prepared to successfully mentor his replacement.

To enriching the relationships in your life, and to a practice of continuous feedback.

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