Should You Fire Your Cheerleader?

It depends.

A year ago, I wrote an article about terrorists. You may recall that according to the Welch Grid, a terrorist employee gives you above-average job performance and below-average employee behavior. The question then was whether you should fire them. The easy answer was “Of course”. The reality is it’s typically a very tough decision and even more difficult to execute.

The decision about a “cheerleader” is more interesting. The cheerleader employee gives us below-average job performance and above-average employee behavior. For whatever reason, their performance is less than expected. This might be a temporary situation or it could be long-term. Either way, it just became apparent to you.

The cheerleader’s behavior is usually very good relative to company values and group norms. This may have been one of your original employees who has stuck it out with you through thick and thin. These are usually more utility players, generalists, who lack specific skills but can wear a lot of organizational hats.

Cheerleaders are very hard to let go. They’re your top supporters. They know the company fight song. They show up early. Leave late. They organize the company holiday party. They’re passionate about their work.

There’s usually one of three reasons for an employee to become a cheerleader.

  1. It’s a resource or training issue
    They either don’t have the tools they need to do the job right or there is a developmental issue. Tools may include technology, hardware/software, financial resources, or maybe human support. You can address the training issue with a class, an online resource, or a performance coach.
  2. It’s a right “bus”, wrong “seat” issue
    This is based on a famous takeaway from the best-selling book Good to Great by Jim Collins. It suggests that great companies have the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.

Here, you want this individual working for you; they just need to find a different job. Maybe they are in sales and need to be moved to customer service. They are in operations and should be in accounting. They need a position in your company that better matches their individual skill sets.

In some circumstances, a job outgrows the person who performs it. You started with a bookkeeper and now you need an accounting manager. The bookkeeper may not have the skills to do the job of the accounting manager.

  1. It’s personal
    The final option is that there is something wrong with their personal lives. Maybe it’s a health issue. A marital problem. Personal finances. The list goes on.

Of the three, this is the toughest issue to diagnose and the most difficult to address.

Several years ago, one of my clients suggested to me in a meeting that he needed to fire his number one project manager. This decision startled me, so I asked what had happened. He said that the individual had been doing great until the last six months. The last couple of projects had come in late and were over budget. The employee was now at risk of losing his job.

I asked the client if the employee needed extra training or resources. He said no. The same employee had been performing very well in the same position for years. Next, I asked whether it was time to consider a different position for this key employee. Same answer. He had been a great project manager. “Why switch him to a new job?”

Finally, I asked my client if it was possible that something was going on outside of work. Immediately, he said “no”. Then he paused for a moment and said, “He did just go through a very nasty divorce”.

Bingo! That was it. No surprise that such a traumatic experience would impact the performance of any employee. Even a “superstar”.

My client went back to the employee and offered both time and support to him. Within six months, he was back to his old self and his performance was stellar.

What about your cheerleader(s)? Which one of these situations best describes them?

What are you doing to support them? Research shows that approximately 70% of your cheerleaders have the potential to be superstars

Should you fire them? Hopefully not. It’s much harder to find individuals who share your values than it is to find those that can perform at an above-average level.

Good luck!