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A Gentler Route to Approaching a Poor Performance Conversation

A Gentler Route to Approaching a Poor Performance Conversation

One of the tasks that many managers dread is telling a team member that they’re under-performing. They don’t want to upset the under-performing team member, other team members and don’t want to be seen as the bad guy. They hate it so much that they often just don’t do it, to the long-term detriment of the team and the team’s productivity. It’s a very common problem.

But it does have to be done – that’s not negotiable – so try something a bit different. Rather than just telling the team member he or she is underperforming, ask them to assess their own performance. The response you get will help you understand how the team member sees their performance and with that information you’re better able to determine what steps to take next.

Ask your employee how they think they’re doing on their goals. As well as an overall assessment, ask them to list the key metrics and examples by which they measure and assess their performance. If you know how closely (or otherwise) your expectations are aligned with your team member’s you be able to see what you need to communicate.

In some cases, they’ll see matters in the same light as you, and you can quickly move on to the next steps of your plan. Sometimes you might be in partial agreement. In this case, you just point out additional areas where you think they’re falling short.

They may think they’re doing OK. This is when you must let them know that you have a different view. Provide more information on why you think there are some issues. Suggest that you explore with them where you might be missing information and where they might need to do things differently.

Be clear about your employee’s failings by describing specific examples and behaviours you observed. Telling someone, “You’re slow to come back to me,” is vague and doesn’t outline a clear path for change. But if you tell them, “I’ve noticed you haven’t responded to half my emails, and it has taken a week for you to respond to three others,” they can make a connection between what they’re doing and your expectations.

Once you’ve discussed that your employee’s performance needs improvement, you can agree a list of clear, measurable expectations and outline areas that are not negotiable.

If you’re dealing with poor performance, agree incremental objectives which increase over a period of time so that the team member meets and maintains the standards required over period of two or three months. The first stage should be the easiest but is often the hardest too, because the team member must get used to the idea of stretching to meet the challenge.

Employees will be more motivated to improve their performance if it’s tied to something they want. By asking your employee for their thoughts, you might also discover you hadn’t appreciated the amount of work involved in a project. In this case, you can agree more realistic goals and determine what help is needed from you. By asking questions, you collaborate instead of dictate — thereby increasing your team member’s motivation to meet their goals.

Close the conversation by asking your employee what can be done to get their performance back on track. Fill in the gaps based on what they share and agree on a timeline and communication plan. Also, be sure to clarify how long they have to achieve specific results and what will happen if they don’t succeed.


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Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this blog, nothing herein should be construed as giving advice and no responsibility will be taken for inaccuracies or errors.

Copyright © 2019 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.

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