Five key components to crushing the employee performance conversation
This is probably THE biggest problem area for managers of all levels; from first time supervisor to CEO. IT is terribly difficult to have a conversation with someone who is not performing well. Reactions to this situation range from just ignoring the problem indefinitely to firing people without ever telling them why. Yes, that’s right – many managers would rather fire someone than tell them they need to improve! Why is this?
I think there are probably a couple factors. First, we are scared the person will get upset and quit and we don’t have a replacement lined up. Second, sometimes managers feel that they have not provided an ideal opportunity to perform well and so don’t feel it’s fair to correct performance in those circumstances. Third, some companies who pay below market average tend to compromise on poor performance out of guilt, or resignation that this is just the best they’re likely to get for what they’re paying. Fourth, people believe that the performance isn’t going to change, so why go to the hassle of an unpleasant coaching talk? I’ll be honest – sometimes these fears are legitimate. However, I would argue that it’s still good practice and having these tough conversations will increase your management skills. Not only that, sometimes it actually works and performance turns around. The reality is you have nothing to lose by coaching poor performing employees and everything to gain. So what’s the magical formula?
The most important part of coaching poor employees is taking the emotion out of it, for you. There are usually two emotions warring when we have a badly performing employee. First is anger, especially if the performance is making your life more difficult or reflecting badly on you (and eventually it does). Second is fear – fear of confrontation, fear of the employee crying, fear of the employee quitting, or maybe fear of the employee not liking your or their job anymore. It’s okay to be nervous, but it’s not okay to either avoid or villainize the employee because of the emotion. To take the emotion out, take your ego out of it and right size the issue. Likely, it’s not a life or death issue, and will not make or break the company or your career. Put the performance in perspective and remind yourself that it’s part of your job as supervisor to help people do better, not an indicator that you’re failing if they need help. This is crucial.
Next, take a step back and look at the behavior only. Not your label or interpretation of the behavior. If your employee is consistently late for work, or does not complete tasks in a timely manner, this is the issue. It’s not that they don’t care, or are lazy, or have a bad attitude (necessarily). These things may be true from your perspective but it’s highly unlikely the employee will agree. Most of us judge ourselves by our intentions, not our actions, and your employees are no different. Your job as their supervisor and coach is to help them see the discrepancy between their intentions and their actions. This is the magical part of the formula because this is what will help your employees understand that you’re on their side and stop seeing you as an enemy.
Next, in order to increase the likelihood of successful change, you, the manager, must not own the problem. If you want the employee to successful more than they do, it won’t work. Part of the coaching conversation is to uncover or inspire a desire to succeed. If you can’t do that, or it’s just not there, there’s a very slim chance that the employee can and will turn their performance around. It’s very common for well-intentioned managers to own the problem and the solution. I’ve seen managers actually volunteer to call employees at home to wake them up so that they can make it to work on time. This is crossing the line from caring to co-dependent and I don’t recommend it as a general rule. Sometimes the best favor you can do someone is help them become more responsible on their own by holding them reasonably accountable for their actions.
As part of the performance discussion, make sure to establish specifically what you’d like to see more of, less of, started or stopped and the timelines in which you’d like to see it. An expression of confidence in their ability to do this is also good, but only if you believe it. If you can’t authentically tell someone you know they can improve, try for hoping they can improve.
There is one final component to crushing the employee performance conversation and this is to have performance conversations all the time. When someone is doing great, have a conversation to outline what they’re doing well. When they’re maintaining satisfactorily have a touch base to make sure they’re feeling challenged and appreciated. This takes the ‘no news is good news’ perception out of your presence and reduces the fear factor immensely, which makes it much more productive when there actually is an issue.
So to conclude, talk to your employees and talk to them often. Talk to them when things are good and when they’re not and remember that having this conversation isn’t taking you away from your job…it IS your job.