As a follow-up to last week’s post, today I’m addressing tips for how to approach a performance conversation with an employee who is performing below expectations. If you haven’t read last weeks post, which was about how to prepare for the conversation, I suggest starting there.
1) Get Their View
First of all, you should make it clear to your employee what the topic of the meeting will be. Performance conversations are always stressful, and making it a surprise will not create the best starting point for open communication. I recommend that managers start by asking the employee for their view on how they are doing. This is for a few reasons. First, you get a sense of where they see themselves- sometimes their self-perception is more accurate than you expect. Secondly, it is very helpful to know how disparate your perception of the performance is from theirs. This way, you start the conversation aware of whether you need to explain your perspective to them completely (and rely on your examples), or whether you can use the time to focus more on understanding the reasons behind the poor performance.
2) Stay Inquisitive
A mistake many managers make is going into a conversation with the mindset of proving their point. While it is important to go into a conversation prepared, you also need to keep an open mind and consider that you may not have all the facts about a person’s performance or the challenges they are facing. Stay inquisitive by sharing your examples and your view on what’s going well as well as what is going poorly; but be sure to also ask questions of your employee. For example, what are the biggest challenges for them? What are the weaknesses that they feel are getting in the way of their success? Staying inquisitive ensures that it remains a conversation, not a one-way lecture.
3) Put It In Perspective
I bring this up a lot when discussing performance conversations, but it is so vitally important that it bear repeating. Putting the feedback or criticism into perspective of where the employee is against expectations and what the consequences are of their current position. For example, if you have a very high-peforming employee, and you want to give them some critical feedback because you think they have the potential to be even better. If you don’t put this feedback into perspective, they may get discouraged and lose motivation. On the flip side, if you try to have a performance conversation with an under-performer and you don’t make it very clear where they stand, they may leave the meeting thinking they have some room for improvement without realizing they are on the verge of losing their job. Therefore, putting it in perspective is important and must include and overall status of where they are against where they should be as well as a clear indication of the consequences of their performance.
Once you have gotten their perspective and learned about their situation by staying inquisitive, it is time to shift your focus to diagnosing the root causes behind the poor performance. There are many things that could be to blame: bad or unclear organizational design, poor processes or technology, a lack of training, or a personal weakness. The most common pitfall is to assume that it must be the latter- that if an employee is under-performing it MUST be because of an incurable personal weakness. While that very well may be the case, it is your responsibility as the manager to make an accurate diagnosis.
5) End With Clear Next Steps
If you have taken the time to have this conversation and develop a performance plan for an employee, which is a large investment of time and effort, you want to do everything in your power to maximize their chances of succeeding. Ending a difficult conversation with clear next steps will ensure that your employee has a concrete action plan to focus on. Without this, it is very easy for most people to get caught up in a negative emotional cycle. Since these meetings are often tense, and it is hard to concentrate and think logically when you are upset, it is best practice to follow up with a written summary of agreed-upon next steps. This is a great way to make sure you are on the same page with your employee, and it gives them the opportunity to challenge or ask questions.