What is the one thing worse than having an employee fail to meet your expectations? Talking with that employee about it – that is worse. It’s uncomfortable. Today one of the most common issues plaguing workplaces is our unwillingness, or in some cases unfamiliarity, of having difficult discussions. These discussions, when done well however, elevate a business. When talking about performance issues with employees, there are seven key components that make it an effective conversation.
7 Tips to Navigating Employee Performance Discussions
A Gallup study shows employees are largely dissatisfied with both the amount and accuracy of the feedback they receive from their manager. While historically performance discussions were limited to annual reviews, recent trends lean toward more frequent conversations such as biweekly or monthly. Whether annually or biweekly, there are steps every leader should take to ensure it’s a quality conversation.
Determine whether it’s a trend, indicating a performance issue or an isolated incident.
Particularly if you subscribe to less frequent performance discussions, it’s important to address trends differently than isolated incidents. While isolated incidents can be damaging to companies and frustrating to managers, they do happen, to all of us. When talking with an employee about an isolated incident focus the discussion on how to avoid the situation from reoccurring. When discussing trends, work with the employee to identify what skill or knowledge gap is causing the ongoing issue.
While there may be times you choose to have a third-party present, meetings should take place in a quiet, private setting so as to respect the dignity for the employee. Performance conversations are humbling. The two worst things to bring into a performance discussion are a big ego and a chip on your shoulder – and they tend to accompany public shaming. Leave the praising to public settings.
Sometimes an employee may not recognize the impact her performance issues have on the business. It’s therefore important to express your observations from a place of concern rather than frustration. If you really believe a person is intentionally coming to work each day to do a bad job, you have a “will” issue, not a skill issue.
Ask, don’t tell.
You may be an expert on the operational process or role but we as self-aware individuals are the experts of our own thoughts and behaviors. So even if you believe you know what the employee is struggling with, it’s better to ask the employee why he is struggling rather than diagnose. If Joe is not meeting sales goals, ask him why. But keep him honest. If Joe says he’s just having a tough month and he’s actually having his sixth consecutive tough month, respectfully remind him. Hold him accountable to his own behavior and self-awareness.
Collaborate on a solution.
Both you as the leader, and the employee should want the same thing – success. When the employee is successful, you’re one-step closer to a successful company. Performance discussions often become combative, which makes no sense whatsoever. A leader doesn’t ask an underperforming employee why she is struggling to corner her. A leader asks for the employee’s insight to empower her, a critical first step on the path of improvement. You, as the leader, should push back on phony, surface-level reasons given by the employee such as “just having a bad month”. This is not to be confrontational, but because you are genuinely interested in helping the employee develop professionally, and overcome challenges contributing to her poor performance.
Get buy-in by asking about concerns.
We all love to have people agree with us – but in situations like performance discussions, it’s a bad sign. Bad habits and skill gaps do not happen accidentally. Gaps worsen over time because we dislike or undervalue the importance of overcoming them. So, because conquering performance issues often requires hard work on the part of the employee (training, practicing, stepping out of his/her comfort zone, etc), it’s only natural that the employee will have some anxiety about the process. Yes, natural. A person telling you what you want to hear, a “yes man”, doesn’t bother to consider concerns. A yes man is simply looking to appease you, putting an end to the conversation. If the employee doesn’t express concerns, do it for him. Ask him, in a variety of ways about how he will handle potential setbacks. If you and the employee decide training will resolve the performance issue, ask what concerns the employee has about adding training to his already heavy workload. “Do you feel 2-3 hours of training each week is doable given your upcoming projects and deadlines?” Failing to plan is planning to fail, so work with the employee to resolve conflicts proactively. This too is an important part of earning an employee’s trust that you, as their leader, care about their success.
So, you have a great discussion, identify what is needed to resolve the issue and the issue seems to resolve itself! Wrong. Its the employee who worked to resolve the issue. I guarantee, no matter who the employee is, she is waiting for you, their leader, to acknowledge it. The same can be said for when the issue continues although the waiting is coupled with anxiety. Set a reminder in your phone, calendar, or schedule a meeting to revisit with the employee. Recognize the employee’s efforts when the issue is resolved. If the performance issue persists, assess why the solution you and the employee developed failed to resolve the problem. Without the follow up, regardless of the outcome, the performance discussion you had with the employee is a failure. She may be a better performer, but without the follow-up, the perception is, you only care about the business, not the individuals within it. It’s a fair-weather relationship, at best when a leader fails to recognize the collective “employees” as individuals.
Yes, it’s work. Yes, it would be great if employees just knew how to improve without these awkward interactions. But, we as people are complex. Think of someone that took the time to help you to become better. Was he genuinely concerned about your well-being or were his motives self-serving? Was she there to celebrate with you when you succeeded? Relationships take work and, like anything, it’s the things we work on that hold value. Have the difficult performance discussion today and start holding your people accountable to their greater self. A good performance discussion reminds us of what we’re capable of becoming.