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The F word – No, Not That One

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

~ Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom


Just hearing the word can send a shiver down most people’s backs. We all want to avoid fear and spend much of our lives doing whatever necessary to ensure we never face it. But this is generally a recipe for disaster.

Having to have difficult conversations with staff members can cause leaders to feel a lot of fear. In fact, letting go of a staff member is probably the most difficult of supervisor responsibilities.

I remember the first time I had to let a resident go due to poor grades when I was a Resident Director. I felt so nervous to engage in the conversation with this staff member. My inner dialogue didn’t help as it had its own story going on: “Where would this student live? How will they eat? How will they pay for housing? How are they going to take the news? How do I do this quickly? What if they get upset? and on and on…

Twenty plus years later, letting go, professional staff, has not gotten one bit easier. But let me share with you the lessons I have learned about facing difficult challenges:

You’ve Got to Pay Close Attention

Your staff knows before you when this conversation needs to happen with a specific staff member, but many (most) won’t tell you what they see because they are afraid to get involved, and so you don’t have all the intel you need. You will have to step up your game when it comes to observing and paying attention to staff dynamics and output.

Listen to Your Gut

Sometimes your eyes won’t see it at first, but your gut will keep whispering to you to “pay attention… pay attention.” If you have a gut feeling that something is festering behind the scenes, listen to your gut and pay extra attention.

Get Help

Get Human Resources involved as soon as you realize there is a problem.

Document, Document, Document

You will need a record that shows the staff member as well as Human Resources that there is a history of a problem, which is why the person is being let go.

Do NOT Avoid

Don’t ignore the issue. Trust me, things don’t get better when you pretend they aren’t happening. They are happening, so face your fears, be a leader, and handle the situation as best you can.

Don’t Let Your Heart Speak Louder Than Your Head

One challenge I have often faced is letting someone go who has a high level of passion for working with students but whose skill set is not what the department needs it to be. Usually, there is an initial conversations about the lacking skills. The person often tries their hardest to obtain the skillset but often, despite all efforts, it’s still not enough.

The pain that I have seen on the faces of these staff members when they realize that today is their last day is heartbreaking. Leading up to that moment I still have the inner dialogue: “Will they be ok? Will they find another job? How will this impact their life?

Over the last 10 years, I have often been left with this question: What red flags did I miss during the interview process that led to these types of uncomfortable moments?

No leader is perfect. We get up each day with a renewed commitment to do better. In the interim, the lessons we learn along the way allow us to make better decisions that will positively impact our team and the student body.

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