At what point does it make sense to fire your entire leadership team and start over? I know this sounds harder than woodpecker lips, but stay with me for a moment. Can a team become so toxic that it is beyond repair? When should a business owner or CEO take such drastic action? Is there value in starting over with an organization?
I rarely live in a world of always or never. There are situations when starting over may be the best course of action. You may need to clean the slate and reimagine the organization. Status quo bias is powerful in any business enterprise. Status quo bias refers to the phenomenon of preferring that one's environment and situation remain as they already are. The phenomenon is most impactful in the realm of decision-making: when we make decisions, we tend to prefer the more familiar choice over the less familiar, but potentially more beneficial, options. If you agree this bias exists, you know how difficult it is to create significant change in an organization. The same people behaving differently is a substantial challenge for most leaders.
I am not endorsing this strategy. I am only examining a situation that might make this the best course of action. Cleaning the slate is a rare strategy that gets avoided when necessary. The leader themselves is likely the cause for the need to change if they own the business or have led the team for more than a short duration. In other words, it is easier to change one person (yourself) than it is to change the methods, ideas, and execution of an entire team. A short-term, drastic change can be a strategy you consider for the good of the organization. If the toxicity is beyond repair, it must get removed for the good of the organization.
So, you are reading this and believe you need to fire everyone and start over. We first need to define who everyone is before we get the chainsaw out of the shed. You own a small company with five managers and fifty employees. Anecdotally, we need to avoid the temporary labor market conditions created by the pandemic. We need to imagine normalcy for the moment. We are talking about removing the five managers and starting over by hiring five new managers. There are pros and cons to this strategy, including a tight labor market. We need to approach this rationally and not emotionally. Consider the following:
First, you must realize you are the problem. It would help if you took ownership of the current reality. If you hired or kept these five managers, change must start with you. If not, the pattern will likely repeat itself over time. If you do not commit to change as a leader, this strategy will not be successful, it will backfire, and you will be miserable.
If you have no time for incremental change and drastic change is urgent, replacing top people with better people can be a solution you consider. But at what cost? Who will fill their seats until better candidates are found and hired? Can the business afford to be without these managers collectively and individually over time?
Think of it this way; you still need to field a team. Within the five managers, there is likely a hierarchy of toxicity. Who is the most toxic or incompetent? Would firing one wrong person give you needed time to replace the rest of the team?
You become committed to complete change, but the team will not buy in. How have you sold the new vision to the five managers? Remember, they likely see the current toxic environment as standard practice. It is akin to a cluttered home that you accept as usual over time.
How will the fifty remaining employees respond to the action you are considering. How will you explain the move to those who remain behind? It might be a relief to some, but it will be a shock to most. Fear of the unknown will impact the performance of the team. Humans fear loss at a 2:1 ratio over gain. How can you mitigate this fear for the team?
How will you maintain the trust of the remaining humans? Will they trust you have their interests in mind? Trust is hard-earned and easily lost. You must develop a strategy to build or maintain trust. Loyalty is a fickle thing and should never get someone a seat at the proverbial business table alone. Will you lose loyalty from those you keep?
Change resistant teams are a creation. Culture determines the people who remain on a team. Do you have a culture by chance or by design? Have you neglected culture for so long that the current five managers are a product of your own doing? Innovative teams are also a creation. How have you led innovation and modeled the behavior you now seek in the past?
Expectations are also an issue. Have you hesitated on expectations or reverted to past practice in the face of problems as a team? When facing adversity in the past, how did you respond? Lower expectations often yield lower results. If you maintain high expectations for yourself and model the proper behavior, the team will respond by either stepping up or failing. Either way, you had a decision to make. Reward the positive behavior or tolerate the failure. You get what you tolerate and train what you tolerate. But most of all, you deserve what you tolerate.
Maybe firing everyone (all five managers) is the best course of action. A clean slate does sound wonderful compared to the dirty mess you have now. However, if you are the one making the mess, the problems will only happen again and again. Until you change, nothing else will change. It is possible that modeling the change you seek and being relentless about your expectations are the first steps to a clean slate. People will either step up or step out. If they leave, replace them with someone better and stay on course.
You must be the change you seek in your business. If the five managers cannot keep up with you, it is time to leave them behind with some water, crackers, and a kind word. It is time for you and the rest of the organization to move the hell on and not look back. You and the business are going somewhere important. You cannot carry them any longer. If they do keep pace, they become stronger and more capable. Business is unforgiving, and your competition is always on the hunt. If you change, you get to survive the market. If you remain the same, the organization dies a natural death like many others.