When we get promoted to positions of authority, it’s exciting. It’s a wonderful feeling of accomplishment. Then that day finally comes when, as a manager, we have to dismiss someone from his or her job. Making this decision can feel overwhelming and daunting. It can even be paralyzing.

We can stay in that place of indecision for quite some time with emotions running from guilty to frustrated. There can be many reasons why you must release a person — moral or ethical violations, policy violations, missed assignments. But here, we’re going to talk about underperformance in their position.

If performance — something easily measurable and defensible — is the issue, what makes us hesitate? Let’s lay out some of the reasons why leaders hang on to underperformers for too long.


Fear. These types of situations may get really complicated, and fear can attach itself to any or all of them. You may realize that you made a mistake hiring the person, and that mistake is going to be highlighted because you now have to dismiss them. It can be easy to do nothing and hope your mistake isn’t noticed. Fear has derailed many a manager.

It’s not enjoyable. The day you start to enjoy letting an underperformer go is the day you disqualify yourself from healthy leadership. On the other hand, I think most managers would agree that following through and letting an underperforming employee go can be a tremendous relief.

You play the role of the “nice” leader. You have a deep need to be accepted by all of your employees and an even deeper need for approval. You feel you might lose the approval of some staff if you let a certain underperformer go, especially if the person is liked by the rest of your team. Even so, you shouldn’t let this get in the way of doing what’s right for your organization. That’s true even if you’ve developed a strong friendship with the underperformer. It also may be a good idea to find a few friends outside of work.

You’ll have to work more. If you let an underperformer go, there will be additional work to be done, and you may have to do it. Or you may have to ask others on the team to pick up the slack. Unfortunately, if they are truly underperforming, the work really isn’t getting accomplished anyway, and if it is, it’s likely below organizational standards.

They’ve been there a long time. You might believe you or another leader has allowed the person to believe they’re doing fine for so long that there’s no changing it now. This one’s tough. Firing them would indeed be cruel, especially if the person is in the later stages of their working life. It’s best to do everything you can to avoid this situation. Start outlining performance standards and expectations this very minute.

You don’t think you’ve given them enough time. Have you done everything you can to help the person succeed? If so, then further time is not the cure for underperforming. Typically, underperformance problems do not get better with time; they get worse. If you haven’t done everything to help your employee, then yes, you need to rededicate yourself to being a better coach for this person. The process must start with honesty — with yourself and with the employee in question.

We’re human. Human beings have emotions, and our emotions are powerful forces. When we’re faced with a low performer, circumstances that are fairly common all of a sudden become unique. Losing their job will ruin the upcoming holiday season. They have house payments. They have a family to support. Where will they get another job? What will happen to them? You’ll experience these thoughts and more. You must be willing to separate the person from the performance. You’re letting them go because of their performance, not because of them as a person.


Hanging on to underperformers is a disservice to your company and your employees. Let go of the fears that are holding you back from making changes that will, ultimately, improve your organization.


Tony Richards is an organizational and executive development expert and CEO of Clear Vision Development Group, a leadership and strategy firm in Columbia, Missouri. He is one of Inc. magazine’s top 100 leadership speakers and thinkers. His firm’s website is www.clearvisiondevelopment.com. Follow Tony on Twitter @tonyrichards4.

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