A brief overview of failing, firing, and Scotch

We’re sitting around the living room drinking super smoky Laphroaig Quarter Cask and talking about the first time we had to fire someone. One of our friends works in HR. She’s recounting terminations from her early career (without specific details, of course) and grimacing.

I tell her about the first time I had to fire someone. I was so nervous that the HR guy in the room did most of the talking (still grateful). When it was over, I went to the women’s bathroom and threw up. The person whom I fired hit a pole on the way out of the office parking lot. Small fender bender but still, pretty disastrous.

I sit there, cross-legged on my couch, 10 years smarter, and I’m overwhelmed by how many things I wish I’d known then. The conversation sticks with Johnathan too.

Why you’re failing at your job

Someone, maybe Dan Portillo, once told me that people fail in their jobs for one of three reasons: Attitude, Aptitude, or Skills. Sometimes they fail for more than one reason, but if things aren’t working, it’s usually at least one.

When you let someone go, you give them an opportunity to reset their day to day and find something that’s a better fit.

Attitude is how you show up for the job. Sometimes people get in their own way. Sometimes you get a new boss and that person rubs you the wrong way. Sometimes someone else gets the promotion you thought you’d earned and you feel grumpy. Sometimes you never liked the job but took it because you needed the money or didn’t feel like you had other options.

Attitude is pretty straightforward. It’s not that you can’t do the job or learn to do the job. It’s that you don’t want to.

And I hear you saying, well, I would want to if I’d gotten that promotion. Or I would want to if my boss weren’t such a jackass. Or if I didn’t have to work on the lamest projects. Or with idiotic team members. Maybe that’s true. But…

If your rider for coming to work excited to get shit done includes a bunch of things being different than they currently are, your attitude is likely standing in the way of you being successful in your role.

Aptitude is about whether you are capable of doing the role you are in. Do you have the smarts to do the job? Can you learn? This isn’t simply a case of whether you are clever or quick, this is about how you adapt to the needs of the business.

Are you one step ahead, can you (as Canadians are fond of saying) skate to where the puck is going to be?

This is about problem-solving, troubleshooting, understanding the business, and optimizing for success. Expectations of aptitude will vary from organization to organization and from role to role.

The good news is that if attitude and aptitude are in a solid spot, skills is the easiest to resolve.

Skills is often about training. When skills are a problem, sometimes it’s because an employee is being asked to do something they’ve never done before or something that wasn’t explicit in the job description. This is particularly common in early stage startups where many of the first hires are generalists.

You were hired as a marketing manager because you could manage social media and pull together great campaigns but when the company pivoted to enterprise sales, you now need a really different playbook. Suddenly it doesn’t matter that you are a solid B2C generalist, you find yourself totally out over your skis.

The good news is that if attitude and aptitude are in a solid spot, skills is the easiest to resolve. This can take a variety of forms — finding mentors, classes, informal or professional coaching. There are many ways to train up on new skills.

Okay, time to put our boss hat on…

As the manager, once you can pinpoint the disconnect, next steps should come into focus. If you’re staring down a combo of attitude and aptitude mismatch or attitude and skills, I feel for you. It’s hard enough to help someone develop their professional skills when conditions are optimal. Let alone when they are struggling to be vulnerable enough to accept your feedback.

You can spend a bunch of cycles stressing about how to share the feedback so the person can hear it, worrying about hurting their feelings, and scenario-testing how they might respond. If that’s where you are right now, I have some news for you…

If it’s not working for you, it’s not working for them either.

It took awhile for me to understand the two-sided nature of employment. Everyone always says, “it’s not only that they’re interviewing you, you’re interviewing them too.” That turns out to be true for more than just the interview phase. It’s true for the annual review phase too.

Your employee who struggles with attitude doesn’t feel good about how they are showing up at work. They may have a long list of reasons that focus on their context and not their actions but in the quiet moments of self-reflection, they know this isn’t sustainable.

Everyone deserves an opportunity to be awesome

If it’s not at your company or it’s not in that role, the kindest thing you can do is give someone a firm nudge toward finding a role where they can do amazing things. It sucks to go to work everyday and feel like you’re phoning it in, struggling to get through the day, or otherwise mismatched to your work.

When you let someone go, you give them an opportunity to reset their day to day and find something that’s a better fit. Okay, this may sound a bit Pollyannaish, but consider this: in the short term it feels awful — like someone is breaking up with you. In the long-term you are saving both the company and the employee from years of being stuck in an unhappy marriage.

Organizations are self-healing

You want this to be false. Especially if you believe in tenure and you feel like being in the same place for a long time should count for something. It does, but probably not the things you think. It counts in that you’ve mastered an old version of the organization.

You want this to be false if you’re a superhero and you feel like you are the only person who can save the organization. You want it to be false if you feel like without you, everything will come crashing down.

You want this to be false because the other version sounds really heartless. It cuts dangerously close to people being unimportant and interchangeable and replaceable.

This isn’t about swapping out cogs. This isn’t an empathy-free approach to human resources. This is about the first rule of full time employment — help the business succeed. This is about optimizing for the team and the organization’s wins. This is about not tanking the group to save the individual.

[In retrospect] I never regretted pulling the trigger, I regretted not doing it sooner.

There is a point where it’s clearly not going to work out because of a failure in attitude, aptitude, or skills (or some combination thereof). This is about the decision not to sit in that space, not to stay in that space, not to quietly hope that the situation will improve on its own, that the person will find another job, that they will understand the subtext and address the root causes on their own.

As a new manager, I dreaded letting someone go. I would feel a small knot in my stomach and I would carry it with me. I prayed for passive resolution that didn’t require any action on my part.

In the retrospective of all the past terminations I’ve either conducted, been part of, or been on the receiving end of, one thing sticks out:

I never regretted pulling the trigger, I regretted not doing it sooner.

Failing sucks. Firing someone sucks. Getting fired sucks.

If you have to go through any or all of it, I hope 10 years out you find yourself with Laphroaig in hand, surrounded by friends who have lived through it too.

This article was syndicated with permission from The Co-Pour

Feature photo via Unsplash


Melissa Nightingale

Melissa Nightingale is a founder and partner at Raw Signal Group. She is co-editor of The Co-pour and co-author of a book about modern leadership (coming fall 2017). Melissa’s been a startup warrior since the first dotcom boom and has the branded t-shirt collection to prove it. She has held senior leadership roles in marketing, pr, and strategy at several fast paced startups, including Wattpad, Edmodo, and Mozilla. Melissa moved to Toronto after more than a decade of working in senior tech roles in Silicon Valley. She is gradually adjusting to seasons.

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