Why mushrooms aren't productive

As corporate executions go, the dismissal of Executive X was about as theatrical as it gets:

  • A surprise confrontation of X by his senior-exec peers in the boardroom.
  • A long walk back to Xs office accompanied by two security guards.
  • Xs long elevator descent to unemployment made with a cardboard box of personal belongings in hand.
  • The unceremonious closing of the lobbys glass door on Xs job as his now-former peers read a prepared statement announcing Xs "permanent suspension" for "gross misconduct."
  • And, finally, the unscripted aside that senior management expected the "situation" to reach "final resolution" by the following afternoon.

Employees reasonably assumed that final resolution meant that they would learn the next day about the particulars of Xs firing. Did he embezzle? Cut a kickback deal with a supplier? Commit an egregious act of sexual harassment?

These questions, juicy as their underlying presumptions might be, reflect more than gossipy curiosity. Any time a corporate leader is felled -- whether by death, injury, scandal, or the vicissitudes of organizational politics -- all his or her subordinates worry. They fret not only about their immediate job security but about what the loss of their leader -- whether he or she was detested, tolerated, or (rarely) admired -- means for their companys or business units direction, prosperity and survival.

Unfortunately for Xs former employees, the final resolution to the situation, if any, was kept within the confines of the boardroom. One day became two, a week became three, and before long employees stopped asking their bosses about developments in the situation. And while these senior execs interpreted their employees apparent lack of interest as a management crisis successfully averted, nothing could be further from the truth:

  • No work got done in the week after Xs dismissal because employees were too busy speculating about what exactly might constitute gross misconduct, and what offenses would rate the second security guard.
  • No work got done in the next two weeks because employees were too busy politicking and typing up rsums.
  • And, most important of all, no real work has been done since then because employees, kept in the dark about what X did to earn his public humiliation, have stopped making decisions that might have consequences, such as signing off on budgets, approving new products or marketing campaigns, or even recommending that senior management might, perhaps, want to think about replacing X or at least reassigning his duties.

The lesson from this X-file isnt that companies shouldnt fire incompetent senior execs. No doubt you, as I, have known plenty more managers who deserved to become "ex" than who actually received their due. But if you do have an X to ex, do yourself a favor and trust your non-Xers enough to explain whats happening -- if not the reasons for the dismissal, then at least what the firing will mean to them, their careers, and their company.

Any other strategy would be gross misconduct.

Send e-mail messages to John Brandt at [email protected]

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