One of the hardest things to do as a manager is to fire someone. It sucks. I have done it many times, and it never gets easier.
But it is one of the most important things a manager can do when someone is dragging the team down.
A sign of ineffective management is when a manager retains an underperformer, but what's even worse is when they "layer" an underperformer. This means hiring a new person in between themselves and the underperformer. All that does is saddle the new person with the weak person, setting them up for failure in their new role. It brushes the problem under the rug and makes things worse, not better.
And really, it's incredibly unfair to the underperformer, who would probably be happier and more productive in a different role or even at a different company. I am constantly on the lookout for layering, since it can easily and quietly happen – especially at a fast-growing company.
Recently, one department lead proposed creating a new, more senior role in her team because we weren't seeing the results we wanted from the middle manager. Her proposal also included keeping that middle manager in the hope that the new hire could boost her performance.
We continued to invest in the underperformer because she was a nice person who tried really hard, and we didn't want to give up. Perhaps she could be more successful in a more junior role? Maybe we were asking too much of her?
A few months later, we ended up letting her go anyway because hiring someone above her didn't solve the root issue: Performance.
In high-growth organizations, sometimes you have a junior person who accelerates into a management position she just isn't ready for, and you need to bring in a more senior person to guide that rising star. That's a good layering move because you're giving the incoming person a talented team member and the existing employee some much needed guidance.
But when the more senior person is brought in to fix the underperformer, both are worse off.
Despite being counterproductive, layering underperformers is, unfortunately, a common practice across companies. Why? Because most of us are generally nice people, and we want our colleagues to succeed. We fear the short-term pain of filling their vacant position, and we want to save our investment. But when we keep underperformers, we create pockets of mediocrity in our companies that stymie productivity, burden our teams and slow the company down.
Don't prop underperformers up with talent; let them go and make room for additional rising stars.
Spencer Rascoff is the CEO of Zillow Group.