A few people emailed me to object to my last post, An Approach to Chronic Underperformance, saying that “compassionately” manipulating people into firing themselves is horrible.
That’s certainly a possibility. Of course it’s not what I’m talking about.
For me, the question lies in motivation. Are we “getting” someone to fire themselves, or “letting” them fire themselves. If a boss tries to get an under-performing manager to quit in order to cut costs, or for any other self-serving reason, his actions are manipulative and wrong. A direct approach, “To meet my goals, I have to let you go,” is right.
But if our motivation is good, then we genuinely want people to find the situation that meets THEIR goals, that lets them thrive. That’s different. If our motivation is to help a manager see themselves more clearly, it may mean that the manager sees that they are not going to grow into their particular job, that it’s just not a fit. The mis-match isn’t helping the company, and certainly that’s a concern for a boss and part of the equation. But a mis-match doesn’t help the manager either, in their career, or personally.
When the boss in my story asked the manager, “What do you suggest I do next?” the question was genuine. A question like that can serve as a mirror, and in this case the manager saw themselves, through the question, as being in the wrong place. With help from the boss, they were able to find another place elsewhere that fit better. There were no recriminations.
I believe that helping people to see themselves more clearly is the essence of generous leadership. It’s tricky business. If we don’t see our own real motivation clearly first, we may well become manipulative, patronizing, self-righteous, or worse, and sadly we see that in workplaces all the time.
If our motivation is truly good, what is the best technique? Asking questions, if they are genuine, is always better than telling. Inviting people to see for themselves is better than telling them what we think they should see.