Every now and so often, something can go wrong in the hiring process. A “bad apple” gets in the mix of a good performing team or maybe the hiring process was not an issue but a decent employee turned “bad”.

Managing people is one of the hardest jobs but when you have to deal with a “bad” or underperforming employee, management can become even harder. No manager or leader likes to lead those confrontational conversations but they need to be lead if you don’t want that underperformance spill over.

Last week I listened to a presentation on the topic of “Getting Rid of Problem Employees” by Todd Stanton of Stanton Law, LLC, where he explained the legal Performance Improvement Process in great detail. I am sure there were many managers who walked out of the room feeling more competent to address this issue with underperforming employees. But competence doesn’t necessarily translate into comfort and pleasure because when you know that you have to deliver an “if .. or else” message, nobody likes to be the messenger.

If you are a manager or business leader who occasionally leads performance improvement conversations, here are my suggestions on how to take the stress out of them and make them more pleasant and effective for you and the employee.

Look at the conversation with a neutral approach

Nobody likes to tell someone else that they are not good enough, that they need to change or else, or maybe even that they need to be fired. Why? Because we think it is hurtful, inconvenient, or bad. This judgment creates apprehension, strong emotions such as hesitation or confrontation, that can get in the way when it comes to addressing the issue at hand. When you judge it, you may procrastinate the conversation. When you judge it, you may also walk into the conversation offensively or you will come across insecure or nervous.

Instead, I recommend you to look at this situation more from a neutral emotional position. Who is to say that this is good or bad? Just like you can talk about the weather or other topics in a neutral approach, you can use the same approach here. So what would you have to think about these conversations to keep them less confrontational?

Be clear on your intention

If your intention is to defend yourself and your perception of the employee’s performance, that intention will determine the choice of your words and the energy behind them. And if your intention is to work with this employee, to find out what is going on in their world, and to co-create a solution that works for you, the company, and your employee, your choice of words will be completely different.

Knowing what you want to get out of the conversation and being clear on how you want the relationship to mature during and after the conversation will guide you to choose the right words with the aligned energy.

Ask questions first and listen

There is this saying, “try to understand before you want to be understood.” In other words, if you start out the conversation with making accusations and assumptions about the employee’s motivation and reasons for underperformance, you can miss the mark and can put the employee in a defensive situation. Instead, you want to ask questions first and get their viewpoint so that you can coach them up from there. Listening to your employee first will also give you a better idea whether the root cause of the performance issue is an expectation, personal matters, motivation, competency, communication, or management issue.

Partner with the employee and coach them up

When you start a performance improvement process, co-create a solution. In other words, if you set the parameters for their performance, they cannot meet them for whatever reasons but are not comfortable to communicate it, you set the employee up for failure. Instead, you want to co-create it. Let me give you an example.

Let’s assume the employee’s problem is tardiness. The official work time starts at 8 am but John, your employee, doesn’t show up until 8.45 am. If you say to John, “work time starts at 8 am and from now on you have to be here at 8 am and this is the first rule of improvement” you could set John up for failure.
If instead you say, “John, work time starts at 8 am but you don’t show until 8.30 am. What gets in the way for you to be here at 8 am?” Now he will give you his reasons that he cannot make it. Once you understand his world, you can help him come up with solutions to resolve the current issues that prevent him from showing up on time.
If you believe that this is not your job and that he should figure this out on his own he may get stuck because if he knew the answer to his problem he probably would have figured it out in the first place.

And if there are no issues that prevent the person to come on time and that can be overcome, then this may just be a sign that this employment is a mismatch. And a mismatch is not that bad. You may even do the employee a favor by letting him go and find a job that suits his work time preferences better.

Performance improvement conversations can be very nerve-racking or they can also be very supportive and uplifting. Its energy and outcome are up to you because as the leader of the conversation you set the tone and intention. Every problem can be solved through a good conversation. Your conversational competencies, emotional state, and leadership are critical to its success.

If performance improvement conversations cause stress and sleepless nights for you, I invite you to contact me to learn more effective approaches.