Saving The Underperformer: When to Let Go, and When To Hold On

Saving The Underperformer: When to Let Go, and When To Hold On

“Can this person be saved?”  

This is a question many new clients ask during our first conversation. And my response is usually, “probably not.” Like the couple that finally goes to counseling about two years too late…the damage is often beyond repair.

To witness the stumbling, ongoing failure of a top performer, that could ultimately lead to their loss of employment, is one of the hardest things that leaders endure. It’s even harder if the disengaged employee has been with them for a long time and feels like part of the family. I’m often asked to get in the middle of these situations to see if we can “save” the underperforming employee. Assessing and addressing these kinds of issues with leaders is among the most challenging and rewarding aspects of my professional consulting work.

There are many factors, both historical and present, that impact how successful a top performer turnaround can be. Among the more straightforward considerations:

  • How long has the employee been underperforming?  
  • What kind of feedback have they received along the way?  
  • What kind of situational constraints have there been?  
  • How has the context of their role shifted?  
  • How has the employee’s stage of life changed?  

There are certainly other, more complex factors. Leaders who are willing to consider the question, “What needs to be surrendered?” can make the turnaround more successful and less painful for everyone involved.

Just today I sat with a leader who was agonizing over the fear that a long-term employee might not make it into the “new day” of the organization. They meticulously recounted the ways they might have led this employee better. I could see the unconscious question forming in their mind…”is there something I can do now that will make up for the ‘sins’ of my past leadership?”

This is when I remind them that only one person in history claimed to be in the atonement business: Jesus.

What if I say this…?

What if I have them do that…?

What if I change this…?

These are the questions a top “Boss” might ask when contemplating what they are willing to pick up and hold on to in order to rescue a long term producer from ruin. But the harder question is the one we must ask: “What do I need to surrender?”

In the case of a turnaround, much of what is needed is beyond our control. We can’t atone for our past mistakes as a leader (though we may be blamed for them); we can’t make all the management changes that will guarantee a successful turnaround; and for the most compassionate and conscientious leaders, we limit our effectiveness when we avoid the sadness over an employee’s future if we let them go. Ultimately, we discover the only appropriate response to loss is grief.

Bruce Cockburn, the perennial songwriter and poet, has a fitting lyric in one of his songs that says, “I believe it is a sin to try to make things last forever.”

Holding in tension the questions, “What can I do (hold)” and “What can I surrender” is necessary if a leader is to walk alongside a failing performer into their future.


As an organizational psychologist, Dan McArthur has worked with owners and top executives in a variety of organizations for 30 years. He is at his best when the obstructions to growth and harmony are not readily observable. He has an amazing ability to quickly build trust with all key players and support them as they move toward better self-management, leadership, healthy team dynamics, and increased productivity. (Learn more about Dan…)


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