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Gibbs in Mourning, Having Made a Change

So the executive has a close personal relationship with one favored employee, a junior manager with some leadership responsibilities and a track record of mild success. But the junior manager's unit isn't performing, and the company seems to be suffering as a result. Outside observers are convinced that, for the long-term viability of the company, a change needs to be made. The objective evidence seems clear. But the executive is reluctant to demote his close friend, and outside observers are convinced the personal relationship is clouding his judgment. He wants to make a change, but he doesn't want to hurt his friend.

"That would not be an unusual situation," says Michael A. Diamond, a professor of public affairs at the University of Missouri and the director of the Center for the Study of Organizational Change (and a native Washingtonian). "It's not unusual when the emotional relationships get close enough where it blurs the capacity of the leader to make decisions based on merit and competency.... And that's why a lot of executives like to create distance between themselves and their employees."

So yeah, I pulled the old sportswriter trick of calling management consultants and professors for help in unpacking the workplace dilemmas inherent in any organization. Like, say, a football team. In Washington. Called the Redskins.

I described the scenario for my experts and asked for their help. How can you fire an employee you feel personally close with? How can you salvage that relationship post-demotion?

Personnel change, my experts said, should not be made lightly. Workplace morale can suffer when employees perpetually feel like they're on shaky ground. Loyalty from above can foster a strong sense of unity. Every effort should be made to help the employee improve before pulling the trigger. Letting someone go for violating company policy is one thing, but a demotion based strictly on performance is something else.

"Firing somebody is not supposed to be an easy, snap decision," said Michael Singer Dobson, the Bethesda-based co-author of Enlightened Office Politics. "Everybody has a slump, and if he turns on this guy, what if I have a slump? What if he turns on me?... On the other hand, you can't keep somebody on if they're poisoning the atmosphere around them, and at some point you have to make a hard decision, absolutely."

So, as Dobson suggested, at some point (like, yesterday around 5 p.m), change becomes inevitable. But how do you deal with the process? Chicago-based management consultant Donna de St. Aubin, the author of 50 Plus One Tips for Hiring and Firing, has lived through quarterback debates with the Bears. She said that decisions about demoting quarterbacks, as with any leaders, are complicated by simultaneous reviews of management skills and functional skills. Strong leadership, for example, could overwhelm concerns about poor throwing ability. She recommended creating objective performance standards that could be used to judge performance, although some blurriness is always involved. And she said a close relationship between management and staff should not necessarily inhibit change.

"It's almost easier when you feel close to them personally, because you can help them understand: it's about performance, it's not about the person," she said. "That's always a tough thing to do, but what you need to say is, 'Let's take a look at the stats, let's take a look at the performance.' What people are paid to do is perform, and if they're not performing they need to step over and let someone else perform. And it could very well be they could perform well in a different role. If you're in the wrong job or you're working for the wrong person, you've got to get into the right job to be successful."

(Like clipboard carrier, for example. Or headset wearer.)

(Btw, the rules are different if we're talking about some sort of romantic relationship clouding personnel decisions. I assured my experts there was no romantic relationship in this case.)

Sometimes it helps to get a third party involved, so that someone else can act as the bad guy (i.e. Mister Snyder). And once a change is made, the executive should help the demoted employee deal with the new reality, to prevent lingering ill feelings that could submarine workplace morale. The executive can offer hints for improvement, and try to make the demoted employee see how he or she could still make contributions to the organization. The executive can also lay out the objective reasons behind the decision.

"At a certain point you've paid your loyalty dues and it's time to explain to the person, very gently, that you just have to make some changes because of all these pressures you have," said Gini Graham Scott, an organizational consultant, sociologist and the author of A Survival Guide for Working With Humans. "You don't like to do that, you don't like to be the bearer of bad news, but that goes with the territory of being in charge. If the person's dragging down the team, at some point they can't keep bending over backwards, they have to just lay it on the line. Just as gently as possible, you try to carve out another role for the person. Make it easy for him, don't try to avoid him, try to show you're really supportive of the person in a new role so he doesn't feel like an outcast. Encourage other people on the team to support the new situation and to make him feel comfortable."

The process, though, can be traumatic. One look at Joe Gibbs's face yesterday afternoon could tell you that much. Other employees can grow resentful or fear more changes. Executives might feel estranged from their workforce and unhappy to be put in that difficult position. And close personal relationships can suffer.

"If someone isn't stressed about having to let someone go, there's something wrong with them," de St. Aubin said. "It could be extremely hard, extremely hard. Think about someone who feels like [an employee] has become a son or daughter to them, that they've lived through difficulties, that they want to support them. It can be emotionally very difficult to do."

"It can be a traumatic thing," Diamond agreed. "Usually what happens in that situation is both the executive and the employee go through something that often looks like grief and mourning: they're angry with having to deal with this unfortunate situation--'Isn't this messy? Wouldn't we prefer not to do it?' And then, after they do that, they usually go through some of the stages of grief and mourning: denial and anger. And then, eventually, they're able to let go and reorganize and say, 'Ok, this is in the best interests of everybody.' They're able to accept it and get on with it."

So there's hope. Let's hope the other players will recognize what's in the best interests of the organization. Let's hope Joe Gibbs will smile again. Let's hope Mark Brunell will take to his new role. Let's hope the two friends one day will grill some burgers and drink some non-alcoholic brews and remember the good times.

And for all you happy Skins fans out there, don't get too comfortable with the idea of constant change. Remember, the next person to be demoted could be you.

"I'm convinced you have at least one co-worker you don't think much of," Dobson told me as I looked around the newsroom and ran through a few names in my mind. "Everybody does. But you still don't want to see that person cut off at the knees, because that's going to tell you something about the editor you work for. Always work for merciful ones if you can."

By Dan Steinberg  |  November 14, 2006; 7:51 AM ET
Categories:  Redskins  
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Fortunately Brunell doesn't seem like the disgruntled postal worker type.

Posted by: Unsilent Majority | November 14, 2006 8:42 AM | Report abuse

Admit it: You wouldn't mind seeing Farhi cut off at the knees

Posted by: DD | November 14, 2006 9:58 AM | Report abuse

Nice analysis. The same thought process should be used on coaching personnel.

Posted by: Sherman | November 14, 2006 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Joe Gibbs is a nice man in a not so nice business. It's all about the dollar and cents and what have you done for me lately. Gibbs seems to have formed a friendship with Brunell which is something a head coach can never do. You can see that Gibbs agonized over this decision and it shows on his face. I think this season is taking a heavy toll on the coach and this just adds to it. I wish both Campbell and Brunell the best and hope the Skins can right the ship so we can see Joe smile again.

Posted by: Chico | November 14, 2006 12:23 PM | Report abuse

I'm an old Redskins fan. Love Joe Gibbs. But this is a situation where he and Mark Brunell should have seen this coming when the team slipped below .500. It's part of the game. You can't replace everyone on defense. The offense is spinning wheels. Shake up time! Joe Gibbs makes a move "for the good of the team". Business wise, this takes a lot out of Joe. Maybe this is proof to the CEO that the Redskins should consider a GM as their next professional move?

Posted by: BOM | November 14, 2006 1:43 PM | Report abuse

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