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How to confront a performance problem

7 min read


In all of the work I’ve done in management development over the last 20-plus years, if I had to pick the one thing that managers at all levels either won’t do, can’t do, should do or could do it better, it’s having the will and skill to sit down with an employee and have the tough conversation about performance.

In the life cycle of management development, we tend to view this as “supervision 101.” And it’s true — learning how to handle a performance problem is one of the very first things a new leader should learn how to do. The problem is, for whatever reason, they just don’t. Instead, they often develop all kind of ways to work around performance problems as they work their way up to the executive ranks.

They develop the ability to think strategically, lead change, make a great presentation and other executive skills, but it’s like they skipped class when this skill was taught. Then, usually when it’s too late, they’ll call in HR or hire an executive coach to do their dirty work for them, as handling a performance problem would be a task beneath their pay grade.

Am I being too harsh or cynical? Here’s why it ticks me off so much: In the worst-case scenario, some poor employee ends up doing what they thought was good work for their entire career in a company and ends up finally getting let go because no one had the courage or ability to deal with it while there was still time to fix it. It’s sad, and it should never happen, but it does.

So, because the problem still exists (and it still gets me fired up), here’s an update from a post I wrote about three years ago. It’s based on a methodology I learned when I first started training new supervisors, and it’s still as effective now as it was back then.

The roadmap:

1. Get your ducks in a row (preparation):

Something’s happened that has brought the performance problem to your attention. It’s either some objective performance data (sales numbers) or some kind of behavioral issue (falling asleep in a meeting). Gather all the data you can – get input from other sources if you can. It’s like CSI work – you’re gathering evidence to be able to convince yourself first, then the employee.

Then, write an outline of what you want to say and how you want to say it. If it’s serious stuff, you’ll want to involve your friendly local HR person. No, really – involve them. This is when you’ll realize how valuable a good HR pro can be. They deal with this stuff on a regular basis.

Schedule a meeting — allow an hour — in a private location (closed door office or conference room). There’s no good time to have this kind of conversation, but Friday afternoon might be about the best.

Finally, step back and check your motivation. The objective of this discussion should be to truly help the employee – not to punish them or let off steam just to get it off your chest. Having the right frame of mind going into the discussion will set the tone and make all the difference.

2. Explain the performance issue.

Forget the friendly small talk — just get to the point. In a calm and conversational manner, explain to the employee what the performance issue or behavior is and why it concerns you. There are a couple models for doing this:

  • SBR (Situation, Behavior, and Result): “In our meeting this week, you fell asleep. I had to wake you up and embarrass you in front of your peers.”
  • BFE (Behavior, Feeling, and Effect): “When you fell asleep in our meeting, I felt like you were not interested in what I had to say. That sets a poor example for the rest of the team.”

However you do it, you’re basically helping the employee understand what exactly you are concerned about and why it concerns you. Not too harsh and judgmental, but don’t sugarcoat it.

3. Ask for reasons and listen.

This is where you give the employee a chance to give their side of things. Don’t ask: “So — what the hell were you thinking?” Instead, try something like: “So help me understand how this could happen?”

The key here is to really listen — for facts and feelings. There may be some legitimate reason for the problem; there usually is, at least from the employee’s perspective. Understanding the real underlying causes will help you and the employee do the next step, which is:

4. Solve the problem.

That’s the whole point of the discussion, right? Eliminate the causes and make the problem go away. A lot of managers seem to lose sight of that. It’s also a coaching opportunity for the employee to learn and develop.

This really should be a collaborative discussion. In fact, it’s best to ask for the employee’s ideas on solving the problem first. People support what they create. The employee’s idea may not be as good as yours, but they’ll be more likely to own it and have success implementing it. If you’re not confident the employee’s idea is going to work, you can always add your own as an additional idea. The key here is to make sure the employee is committed — which leads to the next step….

5. Ask for commitment and set a follow-up date.

Summarize the action plan, and ask for the employee’s commitment. They need to say it to own it. Then make sure to set and agree on a follow-up date to check in on progress. That way, if the initial ideas are not working, you can come up with additional ideas. You also let the employee know you’re not going to let it slide.

6. Express your confidence (and possible consequences).

If this is just the first discussion, and not a serious infraction, then there’s no need to mention consequences. However, if not, then you’ll need to make sure you clearly describe what will happen if there is insufficient improvement in performance or if the behavior does not improve. Either way, end it on a positive note — by expressing your confidence that the solutions you’ve both come up with will work. I realize this is hard to do if you don’t sincerely mean it; if that’s the case, then don’t say it.

There you go. After the meeting, document the discussion, and keep it in your employee file. Then, make sure there’s follow-up.

A lot of good employees screw up now and then. In fact, at some point in our careers, we all do. If you follow this process, you’ll get most of them back on track before it gets out of hand.

Dan McCarthy is the director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire. He writes the award-winning leadership-development blog Great Leadership and is consistently ranked as one of the top digital influencers in leadership and talent management. He’s a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership. E-mail McCarthy.