Leadership & Professional Development

What leaders should know before having tough conversations about performance

December 13, 2019 6:59 pm

Last month, we talked about the importance of positive feedback as part of performance management. When you routinely let staff know about the things they do well, you build social capital. It pays off on days when you have to address a performance issue or deliver bad news. Let’s look at how to ensure even those days have better outcomes.

Think of tough conversations in three levels: low, medium and high.

Low-level tough conversations are small course corrections, alerting people that they need to make a change. You may be addressing the person who occasionally arrives late for work or for meetings, or who spends too much time looking at a digital device during meetings. The person might be a good employee who is slipping up on a protocol or procedure or turning in work that isn’t bad but needs fine-tuning.

Medium-level tough conversation happen if the employee in the low-level category doesn’t improve — or to address more serious underperformance, including consistent mediocrity. Such conversations reference the consequences of continued problems while laying out a clear understanding of what improvement looks like. They can involve putting people on performance improvement plans with structured goals and assessments.

High-level tough talks are generally much more intense and involve investigations, suspensions, layoffs and firings.

3 ways leaders may stumble with tough conversations

1. They avoid them, especially the lowest-level talks. They wait until annual evaluations to tell employees about things that easily could have been corrected. That lack of communication frustrates employees.

2. They focus on attitude instead of behavior. Telling someone to “be more cooperative with colleagues” is much less clear than saying, “Return your co-workers’ email inquiries within 48 hours.” I can ask you to stop being rude, or I can ask you to stop interrupting others when they are mid-sentence. The latter works better because it is unambiguous and speaks to behavior, not character. Remember, we can’t read people’s minds, but we can measure their behavior.

3. They forget that human beings have an automatic response to criticism: We defend ourselves. Managers shouldn’t get frustrated when the late-arriving employee talks about all the times she works extra hours, or the interrupter talks about all the people he helps. They aren’t being disrespectful. The best approach is to hear them out, agree with what they do well, then ask them to work on the issue at hand.

Preparing for tough conversations

Know what your goal is for the conversation. Be able to put that goal into a sentence: “My goal is to tell this employee that another candidate got the promotion and to ensure she knows she was a strong candidate and has a future here.”

When discussing behavior, have examples of what the person is doing wrong and what the right type of behavior looks like. Be specific.

Calibrate your opening words to the seriousness of the subject. When it’s a low-level conversation, it’s fine to start off-topic: “What are you working on today?” followed by chit-chat, and “Hey, I just wanted to mention something. We didn’t get your expense report on time last month, and that causes problems for accounting. You’re cool on this, right?”

If the conversation is to address a higher-level issue, however, be direct: “The purpose of this meeting is to tell you we are putting you on a performance improvement plan. I’m going to spell out the reasons, the requirements and the next steps.”

One more thing: I tell managers to “look up” before a tough talk. Should you run this past HR? Alert your own boss? Should you consider doing a role-play with another manager so you can anticipate how the staffer might respond?

Staying on course during tough conversations

The following tips can keep the conversation on track:

Keep your goal in mind. Listen, but don’t get caught up in deflections. The employee may say, “Why are you talking to me and not Nick? He does the same thing.” Now, if you like to debate, you might be tempted to talk about all the good things Nick does — just to win the argument. But you’ve gone down an unnecessary path. Instead, your response should be, “Thanks for mentioning Nick. Today we’re talking about you.”

Always keep your cool, no matter how emotional the other person gets. Your ability to stay calm keeps you in command.

Know when to remind a good employee that this conversation doesn’t negate the person’s high-quality work, but the problem needs fixing. If needed, be ready to hand over a tissue and pause so the employee can collect his or her composure. Know that you can simply stop a conversation and reschedule if the other person isn’t listening or is overreacting.

Know how to end the talk. A good approach is to say, “Here’s what I’ve heard you say . . . ” and recap. Then ask, “To make sure we’re on the same page, what did you hear from me?” Establishing this understanding is critical. Then finish with some variation of: “Here’s what will happen next.” That can be anything from “We’re going to look back on this and laugh” to “We’re going to meet each Thursday at 2 p.m. to review your progress.”

Following up on tough conversations

Every conversation should have a follow-up. After a low-level chat, have a normalizing conversation about work, family, the weather — something to make clear that the employee  isn’t defined by your last critique. These kinds of reviews stay with people longer than you think.

For higher-level conversations, follow up with documentation (a recap of the meeting), a reminder of the next meeting or a note to HR. Follow the procedures your organization expects.

But remember, the better you are at having low-level tough talks, the fewer higher-level conversations you’ll need. And the more you give your employees a balanced diet of feedback that incorporates positive assessments, the better manager you’ll be.


googletag.cmd.push( function () { googletag.display( 'hfma-gpt-text1' ); } );
googletag.cmd.push( function () { googletag.display( 'hfma-gpt-text2' ); } );
googletag.cmd.push( function () { googletag.display( 'hfma-gpt-text3' ); } );
googletag.cmd.push( function () { googletag.display( 'hfma-gpt-text4' ); } );
googletag.cmd.push( function () { googletag.display( 'hfma-gpt-text5' ); } );
googletag.cmd.push( function () { googletag.display( 'hfma-gpt-text6' ); } );
googletag.cmd.push( function () { googletag.display( 'hfma-gpt-text7' ); } );
googletag.cmd.push( function () { googletag.display( 'hfma-gpt-leaderboard' ); } );