Tough Conversations: How Managers Can Address Performance Problems

Oh boy, here it comes… that “tough” conversation you’ve been anticipating – even worrying about – all day. You have an employee who is not meeting expectations, or repeatedly having issues at work, and you can’t put it off any longer. It needs to get addressed today.

Rather than dreading a conversation about performance problems, it is possible for managers to address issues in a way that’s good for the employee and for the business.

First, remember this is worth doing. That’s the manager’s job, not matter how uncomfortable it may be. Left unaddressed, recurring performance problems for an individual can hurt the entire team, make people less engaged and undermine management’s credibility.

Next, keep in mind you both know what’s going on. In every relationship, personal or professional, both parties tend to have a sense for what’s happening, or at least if something is wrong. This probably won’t be a surprise to the employee, unless they’re in denial. For them, addressing this now can be a positive step to get back on track, and take ownership of their future.

So, about the actual conversation. What do you say? It’s difficult to “should” a person to success. It’s best to avoid phrases that lead to a defensive or angry reaction. Statements like “you should (or shouldn’t)” or “you must” or “you can’t” tend to close things off, or lead to defensiveness. It’s also good to avoid always/never statements and other absolutes.

Consider using inviting phrases that help clarify, and encourage the employee to buy in and see possibilities. Clarifying statements include phrases like “what the job calls for” and “what I have observed.” There are good phrases for getting the conversation steered in an encouraging direction as well, “I’d suggest”, “I’d like you to consider” and “are you open to?”

Even by avoiding closed phrases and being clear and encouraging, an employee may get defensive and even emotional. In those situations, staying calm and acknowledging the emotions is the right thing to do. We’re all human. Then, if they are able to be calm, a manager’s job is to ensure that everything is both clear and confirmed before the conversation ends. Ideally, both individuals can finish the conversation with a focus on the future and an idea of what that success looks like.

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