Wednesday, October 19, 2011

When You Stop Having Fun

As a teenager I played lead guitar in a band. We weren't very good, but we had fun. Over time the rest of the players in the band started to get serious about playing professionally. They wanted to play other people's songs and get the sound perfect. Slowly but surely the fun disappeared for me, as everyone else got serious about the group. As the fun died, so did my interest in the group. Eventually the inevitable happened and my best friend from childhood had to ask me to leave the band. So instead of becoming a rock star I went to university, got a computer science degree and I've been having fun with computers ever since. The band found a new lead guitarist who fitted in and they played professionally for several years.

Hiring and firing decisions are never easy. Whether you're in a band or a large corporation, the decision cannot be taken lightly. In my experience, you have to ask yourself two questions. First, is this termination the right decision for the organization? Second, is it the right decision for the individual being terminated? As a manager, the first question is usually easier to answer than the second. But in my band example, the band did the right thing for the group and the right thing for me. I went on to a career I loved and they got to play the music they loved.

Management requires a healthy balance of understanding of others and self-awareness of your own needs. Balance your thinking before you act. Be aware of the toll on the organization while taking the time to assess the employee. Think carefully about your own biases when making the decision. Empathy is about understanding as much about others as you understand about yourself.

When you have a people problem and you lose sight of both sides' needs you can make several mistakes. The simplest reaction is to ignore a minor staffing issue. It's easy to worry about bigger issues and hope the little ones go away. But when an employee no longer fits in, the problem will fester and grow into a show-stopper that damages both the organization and the individual. Time is lost and both sides suffer.

Be careful in rushing into the decision. Some managers make difficult decisions too quickly. Shooting from the hip and terminating an employee without thinking through the consequences is mindlessly naive. In these situations the manager recognizes the situation is failing the company and simply pulls the trigger. Without understanding the employee's potential value you may have made a mistake. That's why it is worth taking time to understand if the decision is right for the employee too. A good termination is one where both parties benefit from the decision.

Some managers are afraid to make difficult decisions. They continue to support the individual after the person is a lost cause. Investments are made in counseling, the employee is sent on self-improvement courses, and sometimes the whole team is dragged to an off-site team-building session. As a professional manager, you need to know when to stop. Resolving issues around the cultural adaptability of one person is simple: once you are sure the situation isn't working for the company and the individual, take action immediately.

In my band example, what I did wrong was stay too long. I remained in the band long after I was enjoying it. As soon as I stopped having fun, I should have made it easier for everybody and left. I should have left the band before they had to ask me to leave. Managers don't always have the luxury of having self-aware employees. So they have to make some very difficult decisions and have some very tough conversations.

But that is why you are a manager.


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