How to Know Whether to Let Someone Go

How do you know whether to let someone go? 

Becoming a manager of people is a role many aspire to, only to discover that once they land in that position, it’s an extremely challenging and difficult situation. 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.

There are so many factors that influence an employee’s performance. But diagnosing exactly why someone isn’t living up to expectations isn’t always so clearcut. When faced with an employee performance challenge and the ultimate decision whether to let someone go, it’s important to ask  “Is this a motivation problem or an ability problem?”

In Crucial Conversations for Accountability, we teach that when facing a performance challenge, asking this one powerful question not only changes how you approach a solution, but also your perspective and demeanor in how you might show up to your colleague.

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. Motivational challenges deal with feeling disengaged, burnt out, or overwhelmed. Both challenges can be solved, but the approach and solutions are very different.

So, before deciding to let an employee go, it’s worth holding a Crucial Conversation about their performance. The conversation may result in deciding that it’s not the right fit, or it may result in a performance plan that will get an employee back on track and performing to expectation.

Some tips for mastering that performance conversation, particularly around the importance of diagnosing the challenge as one of ability or motivation, and then what to do once you figure it out, include:


Performance conversations are hard—there’s no getting around it. To avoid generating defensiveness, stick to the facts. Start by describing the gap between your expectations and what you’ve observed over a recent period. For example, if it’s a sales role and there are sales targets and an employee is not hitting these, simply talk about that gap. Don’t infer what it might suggest to you about them as a person or contributor. The facts will speak for themselves.


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 in some instances, but jumping to that conclusion doesn’t serve your employee well, nor help you arrive at the best 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? Try to really understand, dig in and be curious. Don’t be afraid to ask a questions such as: “Do you have the resources and skills you need to do your job effectively? Is something else going on that we should be aware of?”


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. Whatever it is, the solution will likely become more obvious as you talk through it.


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. But consider that wielding power will destroy your relationship. If you feel there is potential in this person or that the time they have been with the organisation has been an important investment in educating and developing them, then consider making the invisible visible rather than flexing your authoritative muscle. Highlight the natural consequences of their sub-par performance and talk about consequences to their job, the business at large, their reputation, their relationships with coworkers and customers, and any other factors that may not be easily apparent.


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. Ensure that these action items have a deadline attached.

Before letting an employee go, you owe it to your organisation, yourself and your employee to have this Crucial Conversation. And have this Crucial Conversations sooner and more frequently. Don’t let a six month probationary period, or twelve month review period go by without diagnosing and solving the challenges you and your employee are facing. 

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.

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