First-Time Manager Tips: The Dreaded Performance Problem Talk

By Marla Rosner, Principal

Though countless surveys say that public speaking is at the top of our list of fears, I contend that for those who manage people, there’s a different dread: talking to a direct report about a performance problem. The catastrophic fantasies abound:

  • “Their ego will be crushed.”
  • “They’ll cry.”
  • “They’ll deny it.”
  • “They’ll say it was somebody else’s fault and sidetrack the conversation.”
  • “They’ll retaliate by finding fault with me or sabotaging me in some other way.”
  • “They’ll tell others I’m a shrew or an ogre.”
  • “They’ll quit and then I’ll have to search for a replacement.”
  • “They’ll get violent.”
  • “They’ll secretly hate me forever.”

Forgive me if I’ve left yours out. These are the most common ones I hear in manager training classes I conduct. By the way, if you’re really concerned somebody will get violent, call your boss or your Human Resources department for support and don’t be alone with the person to have this type of conversation. But let’s face it, most of our avoidance is with the garden variety defensiveness that we anticipate an employee may feel, not that the person will transform into The Incredible Hulk. The fact is that I’ve had many of the same aversions to addressing employee performance problems. My own anxiety may be the reason I’ve honed training classes to address performance issues diplomatically. And yes, it can be done.

Step 1: Avoidance is Not an Option

The first step is understanding why avoidance is not an option. Though we tend to obsess about the potential outcomes of a difficult conversation, we ignore the more likely outcomes of leaving performance problems un-addressed. If you don’t address performance issues you risk some serious problems:

  • The performance may get worse. Example: The person who comes to work late thinks it’s OK since you haven’t addressed it. So now they arrive late more frequently.
  • The performance is contagious. Example: Your team sees that one of your employees wears T-shirts with inappropriate slogans. Now everyone thinks that’s OK and an unspoken competition develops with employees vying for the best (not for customer consumption) laugh.
  • The impact of the poor performance may create financial loss for the company, e.g., disgruntled customers, delayed production, poor quality or poor efficiency.
  • Your boss expects you to handle performance problems and you’re not doing it. Your next meeting with your boss could be awkward; she may address this issue.
  • The last risk is one that is usually not anywhere on our radar when we’re in the avoidance mode; we’re actually depriving someone of valuable feedback. There’s no way a person can correct a problem if they don’t know about it. It’s usually the case that if people are not doing their job well, they don’t get raises or promotions. So if you hold back corrective feedback, you’re really sabotaging that person’s chance at success.

Step 2: Change Your Mental Model

The second step is to change your mental model of a manager. Don’t see yourself as the nightmare teacher scolding a kid in class. See yourself as the admired and respected coach, giving a team member valuable direction on improving his or her game.

Step 3: Hone Your Communication Skills

The third step is to hone your communication skills:

  • Avoid blaming, judgmental comments.
  • Stick to the facts of the situation and the impact of the poor performance on the business.
  • Listen well and invite dialogue.
  • Confirm the person understands the need for improvement, and ask for a commitment to new behaviors.

I’ll never forget an enormously gratifying email I got from a former employee; he told me that my feedback to him years ago had changed his whole career. He fixed the problem, went on to several promotions with different companies, and was very satisfied with what he’d attained. Might he have gotten to the same place without that talk? From his point of view, it was a turning point.

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