Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

How to Know Whether to Let Someone Go

Dear Crucial Skills,

How do you know whether to let someone go? My spouse and I own a startup that we are funding ourselves. We hired a sales rep last year and they’ve made one sale so far, not nearly enough to sustain their role. I am full of self-doubt about what to do. Is it our product? Collateral? Their skills? Tell me what I can do.


Dear Self-Doubt,

Managing people is a role many covet only to find that once they land in that position, it’s extremely difficult. And when the fate of your company is dependent on another person’s performance—and your management of their performance—the stakes are even higher.

As you know, and as your question suggests, there are so many factors that influence a person’s performance. Diagnosing exactly why someone isn’t living up to expectations isn’t cut and dried. But I’ve found one question that makes all the difference in how you move forward with a management or performance challenge and the ultimate decision to let someone go.

In Crucial Conversations for Accountability, we teach that when facing a performance challenge, there is one powerful question that will not only change how you approach a solution, but also your perspective and demeanor in how you might show up to your colleague. That question: “Is this a motivation problem or an ability problem?”

Ability challenges involve not having the appropriate resources to do the job well, not having proper training, or perhaps needing additional skills as the role evolves. Motivation challenges deal with feeling disengaged, burned out, or overwhelmed. Both challenges can be solved, but the approach and solutions will be very different.

So, before deciding to let your colleague go, I’d suggest first holding a Crucial Conversation about their performance—that conversation may result in you deciding that it’s not the right fit, or it may result in a performance plan that will get them back on track or performing to standard.

Below, I’ll share some tips for mastering that performance conversation—tips that revolve around the important step of diagnosing the challenge as one of ability or motivation, and then what to do once you figure it out.

Stick to the Facts

Performance conversations are hard—there’s no getting around that. To avoid generating defensiveness, stick to the facts. Start by describing the gap between your expectations and what you’ve observed over the last year. For example, this role is a sales role and there is likely a quota—one your colleague is not hitting. Simply talk about that gap, don’t infer what it means to you about them as a person or contributor. The facts will speak for themselves.

Diagnose Motivation and Ability

When managing people who are not meeting expectations, it’s easy to assume their lack of performance is due to laziness, incompetence, or apathy. And perhaps that’s true, but jumping to that conclusion doesn’t serve your colleague well or help you arrive at the correct solution. Instead, fight the tendency to assume that all problems are a result of a lack of motivation. After factually describing the problem to your colleague, stop and listen to what they have to say. Listen for both causal forces: Are they unable to make sales, or are they unmotivated to close a sale? To really understand, dig in and be curious. Don’t be afraid to ask point blank: “Do you have the resources and skills you need to do your job? Is something else going on that we should be aware of?”

Make it Easy

If it turns out your colleague doesn’t have what they need to close a sale, then a motivational speech won’t cut it. As a manager or business owner, your fastest path to getting the results you want is to make it easy for your employee to get the job done. Ask them what it will take to remove the barriers impeding results. If they don’t know, jointly brainstorm. Maybe they need access to a new database to mine for leads, maybe they need a budget to travel and make in-person sales calls, maybe they need better collateral or more marketing support as you suspect. Whatever it is, the solution will likely become more obvious as you talk it out.

Avoid a Power Play

If it turns out to not be an ability issue and your colleague is simply unmotivated, you may be inclined to coerce or threaten them using your power and authority—and understandably so, your business and livelihood is on the line. But consider that wielding power will kill your relationship. If you feel there is potential in this person or that the last year has been an important investment in educating and developing this person—then consider making the invisible visible rather than flexing your authority. Highlight the natural consequences to their poor performance. Talk about consequences to their job, the business at large, their reputation, their relationships with coworkers and customers, really anything that matters but may not be easily visible.

End Well

Once you’ve discussed your concerns, you should have some ideas that will help you reach a resolution, and it’ll be time to take action. Make it clear who should do what and by when. There is no “we” when assigning tasks; make it clear who’s responsible for what. Also, without a deadline, you have not actually set a goal.

I would encourage you to have this Crucial Conversation before deciding to let your colleague go. I would also encourage you to have these Crucial Conversations sooner and more frequently. It seems you have fallen short in this situation by allowing an entire year to go by without diagnosing and solving the challenges you and your employee are facing. Your drawn-out silence is what has put you in this awkward and unfortunate position of having your employee’s job on the line, as well as the success of your company.

Performance management is simply a series of Crucial Conversations. As the manager, it’s your job to keep the dialogue open. So, going forward, make these performance conversations frequent and focused. The solution you arrive at—whether it addresses ability or motivation—won’t be a one-and-done resolution. You’ll need to check in frequently to ensure the performance plan is working and adjust along the way. It won’t be long before you’ll know if these specific performance challenges are resolvable. And if they aren’t, you can confidently make the decision to let them go.

Best of luck,

What else could Self-Doubt do? Share in the comments.

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9 thoughts on “How to Know Whether to Let Someone Go”

  1. Rola Al Ashkar

    That was helpful not only for business relationships but other relationships. “Is it about ability or motivation?” Is a great question to always ask. Thanks

    1. Brittney Maxfield

      So glad you enjoyed it. Thank you.

  2. John Silva

    Ability or motivation question is great. As an HR professional, I strongly advise managers, leaders, and business owners to avoid saying or thinking, “Is it the right fit?” Fit is subjective and can leave your company vulnerable to lawsuits. Just like keeping the conversation to the facts, keep assessments focused on objective behaviors that can be more easily understood, observed, and measured.

    1. Brittney Maxfield

      Thank you for that insight John – I agree.

  3. Jeff Grigg

    Let’s also be open to the possibility that it’s not all about them; that our actions may contribute to their success or failure.

    I specifically recall working at a startup where, in spite of my personal distaste for sales and sales people, I was deeply impressed by how successful our sales people were, in spite of our product’s flaws. But eventually we failed, as our product was just not good enough — more my fault than theirs.

    1. Brittney Maxfield

      Very good point Jeff – thanks for sharing that insight.

  4. Dr. Dennis O'Grady

    A very empathetic approach for initiating a sensible and assertive dialogue when fears of failure run high on both sides of the performance fence. Thanks, Brittney!

  5. Kathleen Zadroga

    What has happened during their year-long tenure with you? Did you outline job requirements and assess their skills/ability to meet those and remain open to ongoing 1:1 to meet those and adjust as needed.
    A year in seems like a long time to wait to take any type of action. Sales cycles can vary, however, this person’s abilities and processes and relationship building with clients/potential clients will not if assessment and development in those areas do not occur.

  6. J. Lynn Jones

    That was wonderful summary of some powerful skills. I think that in addition to the HR application, the principles are also important with family members. I really liked how you mentioned that it is our responsibility to keep the lines of communication open. We’ll dkne!

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