The Single Biggest Mistake Executives Make

This article presents the single largest factor and reason why any business struggles or fails. This one factor is also the biggest cause of stress, conflict, and burnout in any group.

A key part of successful management is accurately detecting and then terminating all those people who are detrimental or counter-productive to the business in some way. This can make or break many businesses. Unfortunately, this action is one that all too many owners and managers are unwilling to take. In fact, I believe this is the biggest mistake and failure of executives. Many owners and executives have such a difficult time making and carrying out hard personnel decisions, that they keep negative and detrimental people far too long. This hurts their businesses and hurts all the good people in those businesses as well. In my career, I have observed this failure to act over and over and over. Yet detecting and weeding out negative and detrimental people is actually an extremely important action for an owner or manager to take – in some companies that could be the most important action.

Would you allow a splinter that is causing an infection to stay in your finger? Similarly, an unproductive, negative, detrimental or counter-productive person causes harm to your business and your people on multiple levels – far more harm than you might realize. Show me a company whose people are stressed out, in turmoil, not wanting to be there, struggling, unproductive – and that will be a company with one or more of these detrimental people. As a business owner for 30 years who has employed over 1,200 people, I can assure you that all your good people will be very happy if you weed out any negative or detrimental people.

Here are some of our observations about people and managing people.

  • Most people (70-80%) have great abilities, strong desires to help, hidden talents, great potential, and a high-capacity for creativity and accomplishing amazing things. Underneath any negative traits and baggage, most people have terrific qualities, abilities, and imagination.
  • A percentage of the population is not qualified for your organization. My estimate is that 20-30% of people are not good for a professional business. I don’t believe in trying to force a square peg into a round hole.
  • 70-80% of people are good, constructive, caring people who want to do a good job. Such people work hard, do their best, and they want to learn and grow. They respond well to the truth and to positive direction. Good people rise to any occasion and are very happy to help and contribute their ideas and solutions.
  • The only purpose of any job is to contribute to the business’s growth and success. Otherwise, why have the job? If the business does well, then each individual who does their job well also benefits – professionally, financially and from a self-esteem standpoint. This attitude creates a win-win for everyone in the business.
  • Anyone who is unwilling or unable to perform his or her job well, or who is detrimental to the business in some way, should be identified and terminated immediately and, if necessary, replaced by someone who is willing and able to follow the group’s mission and purpose.
  • People who are unable or unwilling to do their jobs actually hurt the group and everyone in it if they are allowed to remain.

If you have a negative, incompetent, counter-productive or detrimental person on your team, simply recognize that person as such and don’t try to rationalize it or explain it. Such a person needs to be out of your business immediately. Recognizing these people and then letting them go will magically revive your group. You will be amazed at the sudden resurgence in morale, attitude and work ethic of the remaining people who are willing, constructive, capable and hardworking. In addition, identifying and letting go of all negative people in your group will result in an increase in productivity and efficiency, with no other changes made.

Letting go of the anchor allows the ship to move faster with less effort and fuel, and no additional crew members are needed.

Good people will actually be grateful that you have removed negative people from their midst. There might be a shock for a short time if you terminate one of these negative people suddenly, but you can be completely certain that this shock will be replaced very quickly with a more upbeat mood and attitude. You will also find that, more often than not, you will not even have to replace negative people. Such people were actually working against the group, like an anchor holding back a moving ship. Letting go of the anchor allows the ship to move faster with less effort and fuel, and no additional crew members are needed.

Likewise, getting rid of destructive people – without replacing them – will cause an improvement in your group. Here is a principle that works like magic in managing, if you have the courage to follow it:

It is better to have no one on a job than have the wrong person on that job. 

By “wrong” person is meant someone who is negative, detrimental, incompetent or counter-productive. Such people will actually do more harm than good and drag down the morale of everyone around them. Such people will suck up enough attention from others that these others don’t do their own jobs as well as they could. The really destructive personalities will create conflict and upset within the good people. This has been proven true over and over – that it is better to leave a job vacant than fill it with someone who is wrong for that job. This might seem counterintuitive.

You might believe it’s better to have anyone on a job than no one there. After all, at least a “body” will do something; they will get something done, right?

Yes, but the “something” will be negative, harmful to the group in some way. The “something” will cause more work to clean up and repair than it’s worth. You probably have heard the expression “addition by subtraction.” This simply means that removing something or someone from a group actually makes that group better and stronger. A negative, incompetent or counter-productive person drags down the group, creating problems and extra work. Removing such a person actually adds power and positive energy to the group. Addition by subtraction.

What are the effects of having a wrong person on a job and in an organization?

  • Such a person doesn’t do the job well. He or she makes mistakes and causes problems. Other people must then step in and repair the damage done and correct the mistakes, and produce the expected end result the negative person is supposed to do. This takes those other people away from their own jobs for the time it takes them to fix the problems caused by the wrong person.
  • If the wrong person is in a job that deals with customers or clients, then the mistakes, negative attitude, and poor job performance will cost the organization customers and business, resulting in lost customers or clients, lost revenues and poor reputation and public relations. Customers and clients in today’s society are demanding, and they want their products and services provided perfectly and immediately. The wrong person will cause problems with respect to customers and clients.
  • A person with a negative, possibly even destructive, personality will lower or even destroy the morale and work ethic of those people around him or her. This results in a general decline in the productivity, efficiency, mood, and income of the organization, and an increase in the stress levels. A negative person has great negative effects on all those around him or her.
  • If the business is any type of manufacturing or industrial company, then it is even more imperative that all negative people be identified quickly and terminated immediately. This is because the vast majority (around 90%) of all accidents are caused by negative, incompetent or destructive people. Such people are actually dangerous to have around and are an actual physical threat to other personnel due to their high accident rate.
  • If a job is vacant, at least everyone in the group knows it’s vacant. They can’t be fooled into thinking the job is being done just because there’s a “body” there. No one is blindsided. If a job is vacant, at least everyone else can help carry out the functions of that job.

For all these reasons, it’s far better to terminate a negative person immediately upon discovering he or she is negative, rather than keep that person around until you find a better replacement. Very often you will discover that you won’t even need a replacement; the negative person was causing so much stress and overload that simply terminating him or her allows others to get more work done with less effort. In fact, we recommend that when you terminate a negative person, don’t replace him or her right away; give it a month or so, and see how your department or organization runs. If a replacement truly is needed after that time, you can hire a more qualified person.

This leads into one of our Leadership Principles:

A leader-manager must be able to make the hard personnel decisions, spotting and terminating negative, unwilling, and unable personnel, and replacing them – only if necessary – with competent, willing people. The successful leader does not care if he or she is liked or disliked. He or she does not try to please everyone. He or she works for the good of the entire group. 


  • Having negative, counter-productive people is the single greatest factor to a struggling or failing business.
  • Do your best to hire only good, hard-working, competent people who want to do a good job.
  • Identify any negative, incompetent or problem personnel in the group as quickly as possible. Terminate these people immediately; don’t wait to replace them before letting them go.
  • When terminating a negative, lazy, incompetent or destructive person, wait a few weeks or a month or so before hiring any replacement. The group will naturally operate better and more efficiently without the negative person you just terminated. It often happens that no replacement is needed once all negative people are out-of-the-way. You can always hire a replacement later if one is truly needed.
  • It’s better to leave a job vacant than have the wrong person on that job.


Joe Kerner
Joe Kerner
Joe Kerner has been a business owner and management consultant for 30 years. He has worked with hundreds of businesses, business owners and executives, spanning several industries and professions. He is a recognized expert in such areas as leadership, management, organizational development, efficiency, personnel development and training, sales training and business planning. He has helped his client business increase their profitability, growth, efficiency, and productivity. He has consulted and coached businesses in such industries as health care, software development, biotech, construction, financial services, scientific instrument firms, systems analysis, travel, hospitals, and insurance. Joe is also an accomplished speaker and has delivered over 1,100 seminars and workshops covering such areas as leadership and management, operations, personnel development, and efficiency. In 1998, Joe was a co-founder of a very successful health care group in Virginia and North Carolina. He served as Vice President of Operations and managed the entire group. Under his leadership, this group increased revenue by 300-400% within three years. This group was sold for a high profit in 2013. Joe holds a Master of Science degree in Engineering from Johns Hopkins University. He has also completed an extensive and rigorous management training program, the Organization Executive Course. This is an intensive 2,000-hour curriculum covering the fundamental principles, technology and advanced systems of management, leadership, organization, executive training, personnel development and management, management tools, marketing, and sales.

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  1. Good article and I agree entirely. I also believe that much of the problem initiates because many a time Managers are adverse/not competent in regards to conducting the 3/6 or annual evaluations and many just tick boxes in order to be rid of what they consider a burden. Here is where I believe development is required. It is never easy to tell persons that they may be under performing and as you mention in your article “most people (70/80%) have great abilities, strong desires to help, hidden talents, great potential, and a high-capacity for creativity and accomplishing amazing things. Underneath any negative traits and baggage, most people have terrific qualities, abilities, and imagination.” It is during these evaluation (if conducted correctly), that one could uncover the reasons for any negative traits or baggage, a skill set that not everyone possesses so a skill that needs to be learned. This does not mean that one has to wait forever to terminate if the individual continues to under perform .

  2. Great points Joe. A toxic team member or manager is like cancer in an organization. I learned early in my career that one of the biggest mistakes I could make was to delay removing the cancer. Ironically, it is a mistake that rarely gets recognized or addressed by senior managers. I’ve observed in many organizations that the higher the position the less willing many people are to take decisive action on an individual vs. a broader based action like layoffs – which are often the result of inaction on incompetent individuals accumulated over time.

    Lacking the courage to make decisions that benefit the organization and well-being of the majority of people is not only a dereliction of duty for anyone in a leadership position, it should be grounds for their removal.