skip to main content
Business Journal
Five Steps to Firing a Manager With a Disengaged Workgroup
Business Journal

Five Steps to Firing a Manager With a Disengaged Workgroup

How to decide whether to let go of supervisors who are poor motivators

by Kevin McConville

In my experience, if you ask senior leaders if they would fire a sales manager whose team missed quota three years in a row, they usually say yes. If you ask them if they would fire a plant manager whose facility had a poor safety record for three consecutive years, they would say yes. But ask if they would fire a manager whose workgroup had low engagement scores three years in a row, and they're not so sure.

Firing a manager for low employee engagement scores is a gray area for most leaders.

Firing a manager for low employee engagement scores is a gray area for most leaders because they may see a number of mitigating factors. For example, a manager's engagement scores may be lagging, but his team's productivity and profitability numbers seem to be holding steady. Or a manager may have carried out layoffs that the company's executive committee demanded, which could explain her team's lower engagement levels. In some companies, the human resources department may be uncomfortable using engagement scores in a termination decision.

Whatever the case, most companies lack a framework to determine if and when managers who create disengaging workplaces need to go. Without that process in place, companies can leave poor managers in their jobs for too long. The following framework -- based on clear performance expectations -- can help you identify potentially harmful managers so you can reposition them in the company or remove them.

Step 1: Focus on managers with the lowest employee engagement scores. Determine which managers have engagement scores in the bottom 25% of all scores in the company as measured by the Gallup employee engagement metric. Any managers in that group may be chasing away their best employees or supervising a team that's alienating its best customers. Those managers warrant further investigation.

Step 2: Determine how long those managers' scores have been in the bottom quartile. Managers with a one-time drop in engagement may not need to be removed or repositioned, but they do demand special attention. Leaders should support these managers but require them to figure out what is causing the drop in engagement and submit an action plan to rectify the situation.

Leaders should also evaluate whether managers are faced with circumstances that are outside their control, such as volatile market conditions or the negative effects of necessary budget cuts. In this case, it's crucial for leaders to provide support and guidance to help these managers cope with these problems.

Managers whose engagement scores have been in the bottom quartile for two or three consecutive years, however, require closer review from leadership. These managers are not dealing with a short-term disengagement problem; they appear to be creating a disengaging work environment that may be driving away talented employees and depressing workgroup performance.

Step 3: If managers' scores have been in the bottom quartile for two or three years, consider repositioning them as individual contributors. Disengaged workgroups that outperform company averages on other key metrics are rare outliers; persistent disengagement generally leads to higher turnover and to lower productivity, lower customer engagement, and reduced profit. Still, every company will have these outliers, such as a sales manager who is very difficult to work for but who puts up great numbers on his own year after year or a manager with such rare technical expertise that replacing her would be very difficult.

Managers with specialized knowledge and skills present leaders with a hard choice. Leaders must either give them training and support to help them improve as managers or move them out of management and into roles as individual contributors.

Gallup research shows that people without the talent to manage will improve only slightly when given remedial management training. Propping up a failing manager won't help his workgroup thrive -- it just prolongs the situation that is disengaging the team. And it won't do the manager much good either; he is likely disengaged himself because he is being asked to do a job that doesn't match his talents. So if a manager has valuable knowledge or specialized skills, it's probably best to reassign him or create a role that allows him to excel and contribute to the organization.

Step 4: Acknowledge extenuating circumstances that are so significant, managers cannot be expected to overcome them. Every bottom-quartile manager will give reasons for her persistently poor engagement scores. Gallup rarely runs into a manager who says, "I'm in this situation because I'm a horrible supervisor." Anyone can blame her team's frustration on some external variable -- from parking problems to the need for new laptops to the fact that the company's health insurance deductibles went up by $200.

Bad managers are chasing away your talented employees and valuable customers, and they are damaging your brand.

The reality is that every manager must engage employees who are facing daily distractions, annoyances, and surprises. Talented managers help their teams overcome these obstacles. Poor managers allow their teams to be stalled by them.

Your company's leadership team should identify extenuating circumstances that are significant enough to pose challenges for any manager. The team should know what these circumstances are for your company or market. For example, if graveyard shifts in plants across the company have low engagement scores regardless of location or manager, this points to a systemic problem outside of managers' control. In this case, the problem may be the shift, not the manager.

Leaders are responsible for addressing systemic issues, and they must deal with those problems at the leadership level before holding managers accountable. But even if systemic problems are solved, some managers will not be able to perform up to standard. They simply aren't good at managing. These managers require the last and most serious step.

Step 5: Remove the bad managers. Poor managers chronically disengage their teams and damage the company's employment brand and its financial performance. They've been identified as being among the bottom quartile of managers, they've been there for at least two or three years, and they're not facing difficult extenuating circumstances or insurmountable burdens. They are failing as managers, and they have nowhere to hide. It's time for them to go.

Your responsibility as a leader

The decision to remove a manager is one that you shouldn't take lightly. Many poor managers may have been with the company for years, but they are inhibiting the organization's ability to succeed. Applying a consistent and objective framework gives you clarity about when you need to act and the actions you should take.

As a company leader, you have a responsibility to your employees, shareholders, and customers to build an engaged and high-performing workplace. Bad managers are chasing away your talented employees and valuable customers, and they are damaging your brand. Keeping them in place reflects poorly on your leadership.

A Framework for Deciding When to Fire a Manager for Low Employee Engagement Scores

This article is not intended to be legal advice. Gallup recommends working with your legal and human resources teams to find the best way to move someone out of your organization.


Kevin McConville is a former Managing Partner at Gallup.

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030