Is it ever okay to sack a top performer?

25 May
May 25, 2015

Susy Roberts, 25th May 2015


The ECB’s decision to exclude star batsman Kevin Pietersen from the England cricket team has divided opinion and inflamed debate. While some see the decision as entirely justified – on the grounds that Pietersen’s ‘a total maverick’ – it saddens me to see top-performers cast aside.

The fact is, the very personality traits that enable someone to rise to the top of their game, such as intelligence, independence, confidence and determination, are also the same traits that can cause them to constantly brush people up the wrong way, if not managed properly.

Presented with the ‘bad behaviour’ of a top performer, the tendency of most managers is to either turn a blind eye or issue threats and warnings until they’re left with no choice but to sack them. There, is of course, a better way forward…
OutHow to manage a top performer

If you want someone who’s outstanding at what they do to work for you or become part of your team, expect managing them to prove challenging at times. Critical to making the most of their talents, while minimising any friction, is following these steps:

1. Accept they’re not ‘normal’

Many top performers differ from the ‘norm’ because of exceptional qualities that typically create problems in other ways. For instance, someone who’s intelligence verges on genius might lack the emotional intelligence required to understand how their actions impacting on those around them, causing friction with colleagues.

Similarly, innovative thinkers will often struggle to comply with rules or follow simple processes. We all know the type: getting them to do their admin is a constant battle and they’re likely to step way outside set parameters while developing incredible ideas.

In too many of these cases, managers end up seeing their top performer as ‘difficult’, rather than accepting that their traits just makes it more challenging for them to conform.

2. Separate the individual from the situation

Instead of labeling the individual as being difficult, it’s far more productive to view the situation as difficult, and accept it is every bit as challenging for your top performer as it is for you.

By taking the time to understand their motivations and what’s driving them to behave the way they are, you can step back from telling them ‘you’ve got to do it this way’ and start working with them to find a way to resolve the situation.

I recently had to help a leader who is a brilliant researcher who, he wanted to share his insights and knowledge with colleagues. The researcher however was adamant that he ‘disliked working collaboratively with people’ and wanted to be left alone to get on with his work, which he knew was adding immense value to the organisation.

Coaching was used to help the researcher understand that his attitude was rubbing other people up the wrong way and had to be addressed. But at the same time, the leader had to be helped to understand that there was no point in asking the researcher to do 1:1 people development sessions, as that didn’t play to his strengths at all.

Instead, I worked with him and his boss to come up with the idea of running ‘Future Ideas’ events to bring people together to share their ideas, in a way that fed his need to stay focused on research, but also allowed him to present his thinking in ways that spread his knowledge effectively. The solution was successful because it met the needs of the individual and the organisation and he did a great job.

3. Increase their self-awareness

It’s too easy for more egotistical top performers to wind people up and create a bad atmosphere, especially when they understand all too well just how valuable they are to the organisation.

As brilliant as they are, those top performers will also need help to develop an understanding of how their behaviour is impacting on others, and be encouraged to build upon their relationships.

Once again, it’s no use telling them how to behave or expecting them to behave conventionally. Open communication and an understanding of their motivations need to be used to help find a way forward. For example, by saying:

“We’ve got a situation. I get that you can immediately work out a much better way of doing things than everyone else – but you’re shouting people down in meetings and making them look stupid, instead of letting them at least share their ideas. What are we going to do about that?”

4. Quickly resolve clashes and conflict

Bad behaviour needs to be addressed early on and not allowed to fester. If a top performer’s ability to deliver means management turns a blind eye, things will only escalate. Look at Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson: after years of sailing close to wind, culminating in punching his producer in the face, the BBC decided not to renew his contract, despite his ability to generate millions of pounds a year. Clarkson’s commercial value meant the BBC took too long to act, allowing the situation to become out of control, to the detriment of those around him.

The moral is that consistent ‘bad behaviour’ needs to be addressed, sooner rather than later, even if it requires calling in a third party mediator or coach to help the manager flex their approach and the top-performer increase their understanding of the impact of their actions on others. Where cultural differences are involved, such as Pietersen’s South African upbringing causing him to be particularly outspoken, an understanding of this also needs to considered.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been asked to resolve clashes between top performers and managers who said they’d never work together again, but who have been brought back on track. By helping them to work together to understand the underlying causes and find acceptable solutions, it’s nearly always possible to find a way forward.

If, however, a star player continues to behave unacceptably, then outstanding performance alone isn’t a sufficient justification. So: yes, there may indeed come a time when it becomes okay to sack a top performer.

In Pietersen’s case however, given he was prepared to do everything asked of him, returning to the UK to play country cricket at a great financial loss and going on to deliver an outstanding performance, I’m with the vast majority of the public who think it was wrong of the management not to try harder to find a way to bring him back into the fold.


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