As I write this, I’m sitting in an airport after spending two days training 200 + business leaders. All of them run businesses that range in size from two to 15 million dollars in sales. There is a long list of questions that a leader in this position could be thinking about. These might include concerns like competitive (especially online) threats, slumping sales, inventory management, sales skills and who do I coach vs. fire?
But these questions barely came up. What they wanted to talk about, session after session, was, “How can we handle our people and team issues?” I’m sure you can relate to their concerns. If you go home after work and talk to your spouse about a problem; if you lay awake at night worrying about your business; your problem is almost always going to be focused on the behaviour of a specific person.
Working with underperformers is a major cause of burnout
If you feel that you’re burning out, most of the time you’ll find that this feeling isn’t coming from working too hard; in fact, most people find it energizing to do work that they’re good at. No, feelings of burnout usually come from the people you work with. When these people don’t share your values, when they bring toxicity to the workplace, or when they’re unmotivated and unproductive, you’ll feel yourself burning out. This begs the question, do you coach vs. fire these employees?
Who do you spend the majority of your time coaching?
Is the majority of your time spent with your up-and-comers? The people that show promise and interest and care? Or is it with your down-and-outers? These are the people who drain your energy, underperform and sometimes seem to suck the very life out of you.
For most business leaders, it’s the latter. This is known as ‘working with your whiners, not with your winners.’
You probably have only 5% of your time to devote to any kind of coaching. You’re busy! You also have a job to do. You are, at best a player/coach. Mostly a player. So, you have to be incredibly strategic about who you allot your precious coaching time to.
If you choose to coach your whiners, it’s going to be a problem for you for a couple of reasons:
First, the emotional toll working with whiners extracts from you is immense. It’s what makes you feel burned out. It’s what makes you feel like you’d like to quit and do something else. It may even be keeping you from growing your business (why grow if it means more of this!).
There is a tremendous opportunity cost to this strategy as well. Worrying about dealing with underperformers isn’t something you can allot two hours per week to. Instead, it makes you 10% less effective every single hour of every single day.
How your brain functions
Your brain functions like a computer. It has a hard drive and it also has short-term memory, RAM, or rapid access memory. Your brain can only store so much in RAM at any given time. If coaching underperformers is allowed into your RAM, your whole computer slows down all the time.
When you’re at work, the underperformer is on your mind. When you go, they’re on your mind. When you talk with friends and family after dinner, they’re on your mind. When you’re laying in bed, they’re still there.
You may not be consciously thinking about them every minute, but there’s always a cloud looming over your day. You can feel it out there, and they bubble up to the surface of your thinking whenever your mind isn’t actively engaged elsewhere.
What happens to your best people when you tolerate underperformance?
The main factor that causes your best people to leave is when they’re forced to work with (or worse, for) chronic underperformers. Life’s too short to do the extra work that they don’t get done, and life’s too short to work alongside their toxic attitudes.
First, the upside in your business lays with your winners getting better and better and contributing more every day. Studies show that your very best people are up to 300% more productive than those at the bottom of your list.
Put this another way. Imagine for a moment, your best team member. The one who’s always there ready to help with a great attitude. How many other people would you trade for them if it came down to it? Most leaders would take their superstar over any three other employees.
These superstars will get better and better at what they’re already good at if you coach them.
If you aren’t spending time developing and training them, their upside (and yours) will be dramatically capped.
The Professional Leadership Institute provides training on Termination of Employment and offers a free preview.
Thought exercises to discover who you should coach vs. fire
1. Here’s an interesting thought experiment: Imagine you’re the coach of a sports team. Make a list of your team members, worst to first. Put them in order.
If you were forced to rank them and choose which you’d let go of first and which you’d keep to the bitter end, what would the list look like? Who’d be on the top and who’d be on the bottom?
The ones on the top half of the list are the people you should be coaching.
2. Who would you follow into the parking lot? Imagine each of your team members handing in their resignation. Which one(s) would you follow out to the parking lot, trying to convince them to stay? The ones who you would let go on their merry way are people you should not be coaching. The ones you would follow and chase down are the ones you should be
If you want to build an amazing culture that attracts and retains the best, remember that who questions always precede what questions. Get the people issues right. Coach your stars to become even better.
When you do, you will watch your workplace culture soar, your results improve, and your own energy comes surging back.