Several years ago, before taking this job, I was asked to turn around a relatively small clinical trials data processing company. I had to lay off a number of people who were not critical to the company's success, and one of these included a doctor who had been hired to expand the business into a certain area that we determined was no longer appropriate. This was not a case of incompetence or lack of energy or enthusiasm. He was great guy with terrific credentials, but we just could not afford his particular expertise in that troubled little company.
Recently, we had a chance to meet, and he confessed to me that my decision to lay him off had caused him to have a real crisis of confidence. He had never been fired before and, as he put it, his view of himself as a person and the job he did was one and inseparable. Here, I had torn them apart, and it took him a while to remember and feel that he was still as adept and valuable a physician as he had been before he was fired. Indeed, he was able to thank me, years later, for teaching him the important lesson that a particular job does not define who he is.
I replied to him that I thought that his initial reaction explained to me why doctor-managers often find it difficult to fire other doctors. They too quickly internalize how it would feel to themselves to be fired, and they project this onto others. They conclude that they cannot devalue the professional abilities of a fellow physician by terminating his or her employment. They have difficulty separating the business imperative from the degradation of one's self esteem.
(When I talk about safety and quality improvement in public forums, I often refer to an aspect of this problem. If you are a doctor, you have to assume that you are a good doctor and that you are taking good care of your patients. How could you live with yourself otherwise? You have devoted your life to this calling, and you have spent years and years in training, and you often live a lifestyle that is very demanding in service to your patients. And yet, we need doctors to understand that they are often part of systemic flaws in patient treatment that leads to death or injury. Admitting that makes them no less able as physicians. Quite the contrary.)
In the business world, personnel decisions have to be made for the greater good of the organization -- sometimes to save the jobs of hundreds of other workers. Good managers do their best to help employees who are not working out in a particular position by mentoring, training, or offering other support. But every now and then someone has to be fired. Notwithstanding that business imperative, doctor-managers are often overly influenced by physicians' view of themselves. I have seen dozens of cases in which this leads to leaving physicians in positions when the good of the organization demands otherwise.
Oddly enough, many of us in other professions seem more comfortable at being fired. In fact, we sometimes too easily tend to blame the boss for our own flaws. In any event, we often move right on to the next job, scarcely looking back. Maybe, too, that is why we are more adept at firing people. We understand that a termination notice is not necessarily a statement about a person's inherent worth. More often that not, it is just business.
I don't want you to read this and think that I am a person who enjoys firing people. Those who have worked with me know otherwise. They also know, however, that when the time comes to terminate someone's employment -- whether a physician or otherwise -- for the good of the majority in the organization, I do not hesitate.