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Don’t Vilify – Debrief and Validate

By Bob Priest-Heck

I’ve been in business long enough that I have been somebody’s boss, manager, or supervisor for many years. I’ve pretty much enjoyed every assignment I’ve had, but there is one thing I’ve never found easy — firing someone I was responsible for hiring. Especially at an executive level. Let’s face it, this should never be pleasant or even comfortable. But I have learned that there is one thing we should never do — even if it makes it easier on ourselves — and that’s vilifying the person being let go.

I am ashamed to admit that I used to do that. Many people still do. And looking back, the psychology behind this behavior is easy to understand. It’s all about cognitive dissonance. If I hired someone because I thought they were wonderful, capable, and a good cultural fit, and then they didn’t work out, it must be because they either deceived me, took on a radical personality change, or are sociopaths. The thinking is, “I’m a good person and a good manager, so it must be their fault!”

This is not only unfair to the other person, but potentially damaging to your business, because you have failed to identify a problem that needs an effective solution. After all, when you hire someone, it’s because you need a specific job handled. If it’s not being handled, you need to understand why. The best way to approach this is through a debriefing process. Is the individual simply a poor fit with an otherwise effective team? Has the organization or the assignment shifted in a way that requires different skills than that person brings to the party? Did you have unrealistic expectations, hoping that because you admired that person, they would somehow grow into the assignment, or that the assignment itself would evolve? In most cases, you simply hired the wrong person for the job that needs doing right now, and you need to own it. You need to be vulnerable, admit that you tried something that didn’t work, and make the decision to correct the situation. Ultimately, that’s the only fair thing to do for the person separating from the company, and for the company itself. Own the mistake and move on.

There’s another benefit here, too. When people see that you are willing to own your mistakes, they are more willing to tell you the truth, even if it means calling you out on a bad decision. Leaders need their people to tell them when something isn’t working. Sometimes, you may need to debrief with specific members of a team to make sure you don’t repeat the mistake, or try to “solve” the wrong problem. If people trust you, they can help correct or validate your assessment so that you can move forward. With compassion and honesty, the person separating from the company can too.

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