Performance Conversations

How to have a performance conversation (today)

We’ve talked before about how to turn difficult conversations into essential conversations. You know, the times when you should talk with someone about something but you just don’t want to get into the discussion because it could get ugly.

Unfortunately, staying quiet to avoid conflict or upset can backfire. Not only can things get worse, too often we’ll snap and react poorly when things are even messier.

At work, the difficult discussions many of us avoid or sidestep are related to performance issues with team members. It’s a common issue among our coaching clients, and it’s understandable.

It’s much nicer to talk about good things than to deliver bad news. There are times we might not want to hurt feelings or add to someone’s struggles. Or we know what we have to say could ignite outrage (and who needs more drama?!).

Many leaders hope team members will read between the lines, take cues from conversations or peers, or that issues will resolve themselves. Unfortunately, these soft approaches aren’t usually effective.

Almost always, it’s better to have those conversations before things have festered, blown up, or derailed. If we want things to change quickly, we need to tackle the issues directly.

Are you cringing a little at the thought of having this type of conversation and being completely truthful with the person? I want you to consider an effective performance conversation as an opportunity to change things. It might be that there are problems that can be addressed (and resolved!), or it might end up that you’ll both agree a different role would be beneficial (within or outside of the organization). There are countless possible outcomes and resolutions, but they’re only going to be explored if you initiate the process by facing what you would rather not talk about. Contrary to popular belief, no news is not always good news!

Having an essential conversation is the starting point for next steps, which is so much better for everyone than hoping the issues go away.

Here are some steps to alleviate your dread and help you have an effective performance conversation.

Take time to reflect and consider the situation objectively

While we don’t want you to avoid the difficult performance conversations, we also don’t advise you jump in without a bit of contemplation, for a few reasons:

You want to strike the right tone. You might be annoyed and frustrated – perhaps even angry – but you can’t storm in and expect what you have to say to be received well (and heard). Similarly, if you’re waffling and walk in smiling and ask brightly, “How’s it going?” then you’re not being honest and will either be met with suspicion or have to redirect the conversation.

You need to be very focused on the performance challenge, not the person. It’s too easy to lapse into, “you should” or “you’ve got to” and that will result in the person feeling defensive (which doesn’t help resolve anything). It’s more respectful to be honest and approach the conversation as an opportunity to ask about what’s happening that is causing the problem, because you want to help this team member be successful.

You need some very concrete facts and examples to share. Vague generalizations about what’s wrong (“Sam, you’ve got to step up your game!”) will not be productive. You need specific information about the issue, such as, “this report has not been filled out completely and the deadline for X has not been met.”

Use a problem-solving approach

It’s one thing to talk about problems, it’s another thing entirely to figure out the root causes. Preparing to talk about performance and gathering your facts before jumping into the conversation gives you time to consider possible barriers.

In my experience, when someone is having a performance issue it’s either related to motivation or ability. It’s rare that anyone sets out for work in the morning with the desire to be bad at their job. As team leaders, we may have ideas about the root causes, but it’s wise to consider we may not fully realize the challenges our team members are facing, or the things they misunderstood.

If you suspect motivation is causing performance issues, here are some points to ponder:

  • Is this team member disgruntled, generally unmotivated, or burned out? How you resolve these issues will vary, but understanding why someone is not a high performer is key to resolving things. Your response to someone who is angry or resentful and passive-aggressively not performing well will be different from that to someone who is bored or unchallenged and different again for someone who is overwhelmed.
  • Is it possible this team member feels unappreciated? Some of us are very motivated to work hard when there are rewards (either emotional – praise – or financial). Feeling recognized for past effort might jumpstart some hard work.
  • Are there consequences in place for poor performance? There are people who will push boundaries if they don’t feel there are consequences for missing deadlines or submitting substandard or incomplete work. You may need to have clearly set milestones and well-defined consequences for future work with your team so there aren’t loopholes.  If you have set deadlines in the past, have you upheld them? If not, having a conversation to be clear you are now going to (and then, doing so) may help a lot.

If your gut tells you that ability is having an impact on performance, here are some things to consider:

  • Does this team member have the required resources to achieve success? You need to honestly consider all aspects, from the timeline and budget to required supplies, technology, and human resources. You can address the need for additional supports (and also the need to come to you earlier to talk about this kind of barrier!).
  • Is it possible the work assigned is beyond this team member’s skill set and ability? This might be a time for a coach approach to leadership to help a normally high-performing team member stretch to meet a challenge. Or, it might be time for some mentoring and education.
  • Are you certain the performance isn’t arising out of some sort of miscommunication or misunderstanding? For example, if the deliverables, goals, or deadlines weren’t clearly defined, the result could appear to be poor performance when in reality the team member faced confusion. (Of course, it’s also possible the team member was confused and should have sought clarification!)
  • Is there some other hurdle that has had an impact on performance? Perhaps the team member is stalled, waiting for input from other stakeholders or clients. Sometimes there are issues with collaboration with other team members that could use some intervention.

Prepare for the essential conversation

Now that you’ve thought through the situation, it’s time to prepare for the actual conversation. We have an essential conversation toolkit that you can use to approach any tough topic with courage, compassion, and skill.

As you work through the steps of our model, your goal will be to strengthen the relationship with the team member and solve the problem.

What’s important is starting this essential conversation off the right way. For this reason, we focus on the opening statement. For this process, we’re going to:

  1. Name the issue – what is wrong and how long it’s been an issue (focus on the single most important issue to resolve)
  2. Give a specific example – without getting into the emotional response to the issue, give one factual example of the issue
  3. Describe the effects of the issue – explore how bad things are, how the issue is affecting you and others (and the results arising from it), and your emotional reaction to the impact of this
  4. Clarify what is at stake – what will likely happen if nothing changes, what’s at stake for you and others, and what is your emotional reaction to possible outcomes
  5. What is my contribution to this issue – have you contributed to the problem, could you have done or said anything sooner, or have you made assumptions about anything
  6. Describe the ideal outcome – consider the impact resolving this issue will have for you, for others, and for the team member as well as what your emotional response could be
  7. Invite the team member to respond – and (this is critical!) listen to understand with empathy

It’s important to note — planning out the seven steps above might take you 30 minutes but when delivering them in the conversation with the employee, they should take only 60-90 seconds!

Once you’ve done this pre-work, our toolkit has a contract page for you to complete. Here you’ll define actions that you will take (that’s right – you and not the team member!) and commit to yourself, a date.

Things we want you to consider include:

  • The most useful step you could take to move this issue toward resolution
  • Possible roadblocks and your strategy to get past them
  • Any other steps you could commit to take

We also cover how to avoid common errors people make when trying to have an essential conversation. (Check out our complete essential conversation toolkit here!)

The Coach’s Questions:

When have you avoided or put off performance conversations? Can you think of times your approach caused a performance conversation to sour? What do you think you’ll do differently with your next performance conversation (hint: it might be to use our toolkit to walk you through the whole thing?)

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