“Do you drink coffee or tea?” – I ask my coachees when they make their first appointment with me. It is important to me that my customers feel comfortable in my office. I also make a point of serving high-quality coffee and tea. The really tough ones get Coke Zero at 9 o’clock in the morning, if that’s what they want. By preparing my coachee’s favorite drink, I also prepare myself mentally and emotionally for the appointment. At the same time the beverage question is very easy to answer for all of my customers. Somehow I think it makes it easier for them to start the coaching sessions.

As a rule, however, my customers are confronted with questions that they find much more demanding than the question of their preferred hot drink. A classic example is this – should a “bad” employee be fired or not? In Germany this is not a trivial matter due to the legal situation. According to German labor law, an employee does not owe the employer good performance, only effort. Poor performance and being the worst employee in the department is not a valid reason for a termination in Germany. After all, there is always someone who performs worst in a team. If we always consistently fire the worst employee, in the end there will be nobody left to do the work.

The employment lawyer Dr. Oliver Vollstädt, who I hold in high esteem, used to express this in a very pointed way – “You can’t fire a cashier in a supermarket if she consistently enters every price wrong for years, as long as she tries hard. But if she pockets a bottle deposit receipt in the amount of €2.35, you can.” More than 10 years ago I held the seminar “Dealing with Low Performers” together with him. Looking back, what a terrible title for a seminar by the way. One of my favorite stories from this seminar is that of an executive in the financial industry.

Participant: “My “low performer” hasn’t performed well in eight years. What should I do, he just won’t quit?”
Me: “And what does he do all day?”
Participant: “I don’t know. Sometimes he goes skiing.”
Me: “He does what?”
Participant:“He hasn’t come to the office for four months. My boss and I both felt that he would bring less unrest to the team if he didn’t show up.”
Me (in disbelief): “The employee goes skiing and gets his full salary? I think I can guess why he doesn’t quit!”

Incidentally, Dr. Vollstädt repeatedly emphasized that it is possible to part with ANY employee. It’s just a matter of price. Well then! So simply offset the cost of the separation against the costs arising from the employee’s reduced performance? And then the matter is as clear as mud or as simple as coffee or tea?

Apparently not. Otherwise, this question would not be asked so frequently in my coaching sessions. Many managers have “inherited” at least one employee in their team whom they would never have hired and whom they would prefer to part with. Even if the facts are very clear, they find it difficult to take this step, especially if they do not have the support of their line manager.

Mr. L., divisional manager in a company in the chemical industry, had come to the decision to part with an employee after months of discussions with his managing director, Mr. H., and various (feedback) discussions with and warnings for the employee. The employee’s performance had not only been abysmal for many years, he had also been spreading a negative atmosphere among the workforce for a long time. However, when a new person was appointed to the position of technical director, who then became Mr. L.’s superior, Mr. H. backed out. He said that this decision would now be made by the technical director. How is that possible?

We don’t just make these kinds of decisions based on facts alone, emotions come into play too. This makes it very hard for managers to make decisions who are otherwise very competent. Or, to quote neuroscientist Antonio Damasio“We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think.” 

The usual suspicious emotions are involved: The fear of making a mistake. The guilt of putting a family man out on the street. We also show our vulnerability when making this type of decision. Brené Brown is the expert on vulnerability. I recently devoured her book “Dare to Lead.” Brown describes vulnerability as the emotion we feel in times of uncertainty, risk, and when we show emotions. For Brown, vulnerability is the courage to show up and be seen, when we have no control over the outcome. This is why leadership always requires courage. Leaders need to make decisions without having control over the outcome, for one outcome we can never control are other people’s thoughts and our own thoughts. They are free, as we all know. When we fire an employee, we have thoughts like:

  • What will the employee think?
  • Or my colleagues?
  • So am I just a cold-hearted manager who stops at nothing?

Very unpleasant thoughts. Leaders need to deal with those. If the employee in question has shown a much lower performance than his colleagues for a significant time, there will also be the following thoughts:

  • For years I did my colleague’s work for him and he got the higher salary!
  • Finally someone takes action.
  • Well, it’s about time!

But what if the employee pulls himself together after all? Maybe one final warning will be enough? The decision sounds as complicated as a lactose-free skinny decaf latte with natural gummy bear flavor.

How about asking someone for advice? Brown recommends the following:

Take a 1-inch x 1-inch square of paper and make a list of people whose opinions matter to you. Deliberately use a small piece of paper so that you can be really selective about who you include in what Brown calls the square squad. Don’t take the yay-sayers!

They should be people

  1. who challenge you according to the motto – “You are NOT acting in line with your values here. Don’t do that. And an apology would be a good idea. I’ll help you with that.” and
  2. who respect you and stand by you – “Yeah, you got your ass kicked. I’ll help you to dust yourself off. But then get back out there.”

Other people’s opinions are important to us. Without feedback and corrective measures we become narcissistic dictators. Without people who encourage us and know our abilities, we will not develop a single step further. It is important to develop clarity as to whose opinion really counts on which topic.

As I spent my first morning on the balcony of my vacation apartment on Duranbah Beach in Australia, I looked out at perfect turquoise 2- to 3-foot waves. Unfortunately there were about 50 really good surfers in the water. The longer I watched these guys, the more I got the idea that I couldn’t hold my own in THIS line-up anyway. Everyone would laugh at me. Or I’d drop in on somebody (meaning to get in the right of way of a surfer who is already riding a wave) and get yelled at. Plus, I was jet-lagged and had had trouble sleeping the night before. I was petrified. I couldn’t even bring myself to get a Coke Zero out of the fridge. Surfing was out of the question. How could this happen to me, of all people? The woman whose longing for the ocean is so great that sometimes she secretly sniffs Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax while sitting at her desk in Cologne…

At 9 a.m., my friend Marie Moana Troja called. I explained to her that I had been staring at the water since 5:30 a.m. and that I was absolutely sure that I would not catch a single wave. Marie replied – “Well, as long as you sit on the balcony, you definitely won’t catch any waves. That’s for sure!” Bam! Now the decision was as easy as choosing coffee or tea. I hung up the phone, went into the water and caught three waves within 45 minutes. I have no idea what the guys in the line-up thought and I didn’t care.

To surf or not to surf – that is a decision that is completely different from making a responsible business decision. In terms of the consequence, yes, but in terms of the decision-making process, only to a limited extent. Voilà, an example from my business context: for over 20 years my professional passion was the implementation of Assessment Centers. This accounted for 50 percent of my annual revenue and I enjoyed doing this for many years. In 2015 I began to struggle more and more with this field of work. I wanted to focus on coaching instead. A clear case of coffee! But I’m not the kind of person who follows her heart. I prefer to live by the motto – follow your heart but take your brain along with you too. But my brain gave me many reasons NOT to give up Assessment Centers.

  • Throwing away 50 percent of your revenue as a self-employed person, are you crazy?
  • You are the main breadwinner! Who will pay for your kids’ university studies?
  • Coaching is not nearly as lucrative! You can NEVER compensate for the decline in your revenues with this!
  • Stick to what you know!
  • Tea!

Sometimes our brain can be a real pain in the neck. Mine created the horror movie in which I would knock on my customers’ doors again after 2-3 years, begging for Assessment Center assignments. I can’t even tell you what weighed more heavily on my mind:

  1. The version in which my customers slam the door in my face and I would end up under the dreaded bridge.
  2. Or the version where they graciously give me a few Assessment Center assignments as a failed coach. Taking pity on the consultant!

Both would feel like setbacks. Shame! Are you familiar with the walk of shame from Game of Thrones? A bit like that.

But that was just a feeling. A good friend, who has been a member of my square squad for over 25 years, made it clear to me that if I decided to give up Assessment Centers, I would definitely learn something. She said that this was not a step backwards. That gave me courage! I decided on coffee!

In 2016 I fired myself from the world of Assessment Centers.
In 2017 there was a significant dent in my revenues.
Since then, more and more wonderful coachees find their way to my premises in Cologne. I’m enjoying this very much.

Time and again we succeed in finding coherent solutions for complex problems together. Sometimes this is a cumbersome process that can take months. Sometimes it is really easy. Often there is a lot of clarity at the end. It then feels as simple as the answer to the question – do you drink coffee or tea?

But as always, life is stranger than fiction. While I was working on this article, Mr. L. sent me a New Year’s greeting. I took this as an opportunity to ask him what had become of his “low performer”. Mr. L. told me that the employee had resigned of his own accord in December. He said that this was the best Christmas present.

Coffee or tea? In this case clearly – champagne!