Blog Post: Getting the Wrong People Off the Bus Without Throwing Them Under the Bus

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If you haven’t faced this challenge as a leader yet…just hold on – you will. In our work with leaders and teams of organizations, we find this to be one of the most difficult things for a leader to do – perhaps especially in ministry organizations.

What am I talking about? Firing a staff member!

I bet many of you cringed just reading those words. None of us like to make a decision to remove someone from our staff or team – but it is an inevitable part of being a good leader for your organization.

Why is it so difficult?

I guess my first response to that will sound a bit self-serving…”it’s because we CARE about other people.” Those of you serving in a ministry context often offer a similar response… “It’s not the Christian thing to do.” Well…in a word…HOGWASH!

Putting off or avoiding removing a staff member from your team is not the most caring, nor Christian thing we can do…not for them, nor for the organization.

When we fail to deal with an employee who needs to be terminated from their position on the team, we are placing her/his immediate needs above those of the rest of the team and the organization. We’ve seen this over and over….a pastor or other organizational leader will tolerate substandard or destructive behavior from a staff person because they don’t want to think about the immediate pain that may be felt by the individual (and their family).

Please, please hear this:

You have a greater responsibility to the rest of the team and organization than you do to the individual staff member who needs to go.

Your failure to deal with a staff person who needs to be removed from the team is having a much greater negative affect on the rest of the team than you are admitting.

Most of you reading this can think of a time when you wish a leader would have dealt with a troublesome staff person…and YOUR staff may be wishing the same about you.

So…how do we overcome this inclination to hold on to people long after their usefulness has run out in their current role? How do we remove someone from our team with our integrity intact? How do we get the wrong people off the bus….without throwing them under the bus?

Let’s start with a clear understanding of your role as the leader.

Do you realize your organization is counting on you make sure that everyone on the team is a good fit? That is something only YOU can do. And while many highly-functioning teams practice good accountability with one another, it is ultimately the leader’s job to fix the issue when an employee isn’t cutting it. Maybe they are under-performing, or refusing to engage with the rest of the team…perhaps they are downright disruptive to the work and flow of the organization. When you fail to address it, you are sending a signal to that person – and more importantly to the rest of the team – that the standards are not high and there are no consequences for bad performance or behavior.

Please believe me….in my experience, this can be the most destructive message you can send to your team. Your failure to address problem staff members will leave the rest of the team disheartened and dissatisfied with the team/organization. This can often lead them to begin looking elsewhere for a role and team where they will be led well. Your unwillingness to remove a problem employee may well lead to your losing the good ones!

Once you’re convinced that this is a part of your role – and a critical part – how do you deal with these difficult employees? Here are a few tips:

  • Remove emotion from the equation. I believe this can be the biggest obstacle to dealing with difficult staff. When we think about having to confront an employee with our assessment (and perhaps the consequences) of their behavior, our heart rate speeds up, we get dry mouth, and our voice can begin to crack. Often by the time we finally have this conversation with the person, we (and others) have been frustrated over a long period of time with the employee’s behavior and we can even feel anger toward them for not responding to the “correction” we’ve tried to offer up to this point. This is the time to take a breath and first deal with the emotions you are feeling. The BEST way to deal with this issue is to remove all emotion. This should not be an emotional decision. When you can logically think through how the behaviors have negatively impacted the team and the organization, you are ready to have the conversation with your employee.
  • Be very clear about the problem. Too often we’ve seen leaders go into these conversations without real clarity about the bad behaviors (or lack of behavior). This is not a time to wing it! You need to be able to clearly articulate the behaviors that you have determined are unacceptable – and what impact these behaviors have had on you, the team, and the organization. You do NOT want to offer up your opinions about the person’s attitude, loyalty, commitment, etc… these are all things you might INFER from their behavior, but you cannot claim to know how they are feeling, nor what they are thinking, so don’t fall into that trap. Stick with things that can be observed with a video camera. And don’t exaggerate. The behaviors are the point of your conversation, NOT the attitudes  from which these behaviors MIGHT be coming.
    • Here are some examples of behaviors you might observe:
      • You were late for three of the five last staff meetings (not you’re ALWAYS late for staff meetings)
      • You didn’t finish your assignment before the deadline
      • You interrupted others speaking four times when we were at the staff retreat
      • You failed to respond to emails from your co-workers seeking your help on a project
      • You broke a confidence from one of our private conversations
      • You rolled your eyes and turned away when your coworker was sharing her ideas
    • Here are some examples of attitudes/thoughts/feelings you should avoid:
      • You don’t care enough about your co-workers’ time to show up for staff meetings
      • You don’t work well with the other staff
      • You were not committed to the Spring Fling and so you didn’t get all your work done
      • You don’t appreciate input from me or other staff
      • You aren’t trustworthy

You can see how statements from the first list are behaviors which can be directly observed while the statements on the second list are your opinions about what she/he was thinking/feeling.

  • Give them a chance to respond and offer an explanation and/or a solution for moving forward. Assuming you haven’t been as clear as you could be about expectations and consequences up to this point, give your staff person a chance to address her/his behavior with very clear consequences for failing to meet them. Be sure to include the positive consequences for meeting the expectations. This may feel a bit like you are backing off from addressing the issue with your employee, but this can be the best thing you can do for them – and for your organization. Here are some tips for making this process effective:
    • Spell out clear and measurable expectations about their behavior
    • Set near-term time frames for noticing a change
    • Set very clear (and documented) consequences for failing to meet the expectations
    • Give them space to succeed or fail
    • Stick to it
  • Finally, if your efforts at remediation fail, give them their freedom. While it’s true that having a difficult employee can be frustrating for you and your team, keep in mind that it’s likely just as frustrating for the employee in question. She/he likely knows they are not a good fit. They probably know they need to be doing something else…but something is keeping them from taking the plunge. SET THEM FREE. Think of your removal of this person from your team as a service to them. Try to see yourself as having given them the kick in the pants they so desperately needed/wanted to make a change in their life. Don’t hold someone back in a role they aren’t doing well – it only cause dissension in the team and frustration for the individual. In setting them free, be sure to affirm their strengths and talents, and give them some practical steps they can take in their new role to help them succeed. Very few of us (particularly in ministry) spend an entire career in one place. It can help for them (and you) to look at their time with you as a season. And painting the picture that a new season is coming can be a more positive way to help someone move on to their next role/assignment.

I know terminating a staff member can be an unpleasant task for a leader, but please remember…your organization is counting on you to do what only you can do!

1 thought on “Getting the Wrong People Off the Bus Without Throwing Them Under the Bus”

  1. Jesus would certainly have got Judas off the bus, probably Thomas too, and of course Peter. If had done that what would the church look like now? God works in mysterious ways, and not always in an organizational way. Would it do the team any good, to help them learn patient endurance? Would a spiritually humble team be better than an efficient organization? How would we explain wounding a fellow worker to God, who after all is the leader of the team.

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