Square Pegs in Square Holes © Kritiya | Dreamstime.com

Square Pegs in Square Holes
© Kritiya | Dreamstime.com

I well remember the look of surprise on John’s face when I suggested to him he should try a different career. We had identified shortcomings in John’s performance which needed to be addressed. After a well organised and supportive number of weeks of mentoring, opportunities for reflection and exposure to good practice, it was fairly obvious to everyone involved, with the exception of John, that he was going to struggle to fulfil our expectations. It was time to part company.

He was a square peg in a round hole.

Of course, we followed all of the industrial requirements of the day, provided lots of opportunities to demonstrate even the smallest evidence of movement onto a course of improvement. It just wasn’t there.
Sometimes, being committed to helping others become the best they can possibly be means telling them it is time to move on. It could even mean helping them find another career pathway. Fourth Question Leadership is committed to the idea of leadership which puts the needs of others first. On many occasions this puts a leader in the position of choosing which of an individual’s needs has the highest possibility of truly helping them. In John’s case it was a choice between the hurt and disappointment he was going to experience, coupled with the interruption to his career plans, and the need he had to be fulfilled in his employment.
I haven’t always been good at dealing with underperforming staff. In fact, in the first 360 degree review I completed my staff reflected that dealing with under performance was something I needed to work on. They were right! It is still not something that comes easily for me. The truth is it is rarely easy to deal with team members who are not responding to being mentored. It is certainly not easy to dismiss staff, even in the best of circumstances. Yet, clearly, it is in the best interests of the organisation, the team and the individual to address under performance as soon as it is seen and to do so consistently.
More times than I can remember taking a staff member aside to discuss their weaknesses has helped them learn and adjust. This sort of interaction is a normal part of the leadership responsibility. On occasion, though, the efforts of any leader seeking to bring the very best out of people requires a parting of the ways. Fourth Question Leaders do not shy away from these chances to serve others, even though they can be confronting and challenging.
In my experience all the very best leaders struggle, at times, to have the sort of difficult conversations with people which may lead to their dismissal. Occasionally I have heard a leader boast that they do not struggle with these situations. Either they are not telling the truth, or they are not good leaders. Good leaders, Fourth Question Leaders, are committed to their team members. When one member of the team is not doing well good leaders feel it. One of the tensions in being a Fourth Question Leadership is the decision making process of keeping the best interests of both the individual and the organisation in focus. It is difficult, but it is possible.
I don’t know what John is doing now. Whatever it is I hope he found his John shaped hole. If he has he will be happier, more fulfilled and contributing positively to his new team. If not I hope he has leadership prepared to challenge him, again, to be the best he can be – for his sake and the sake of the team.


  • Square pegs fit in square holes – proper people placement prevents problems.
  • Speak to team members about issues of underperformance.
  • Give them every opportunity to grow and learn.
  • It doesn’t help anyone if you shy away from, procrastinate, or ignore underperformance.
  • Be prepared to help someone leave your organization if it serves them, and the organization, the best way – even if they might not see it that way at the time.

Additional Resources

Improving Your Leadership Effectiveness
4 Keys to Coaching Underperforming Employees
How to Deal With Underperforming Employees