13 Mar

3 Secrets to Successfully Engaging in Difficult Conversations with Poor Performers

We all shy away from initiating workplace conversations that could easily escalate into conflict. You never know how the person will react to what they may perceive as unfair criticism or a threat to their career. They could blame you for their difficulties. Maybe they’ll become vocal and try to damage your reputation within the organization. They may get upset and quit. If they do leave you’ll have to hire, train, and develop their replacement – at a tremendous cost to the company in terms of time, energy, and money. That’s all going to happen on your watch, too, which will further erode your leadership credibility and status.

But as a leader you must take responsibility for managing people. The buck stops with you. When your team members excel, so does your career. But if they underperform and you fail to adequately address the situation in a timely fashion then you’re the one who will be held accountable.

So here are three tips for making these touchy conversations smoother and more productive:

1. Meet in the Middle

  • You should approach all of these conversations with one primary objective. Strive to find mutually beneficial goals and steer the conversation toward those.
  • That makes the person across the desk from you feel safe, it stimulates their interest, and it motivates them to open up and engage with you in a productive way.
  • Once they are receptive you are in a much better position to point out specific behaviors you want them to change or improve.

2. Stick to the Facts

  • Don’t be vague, be factual. Instead of saying “you’re not pulling your weight,” for example, show actual metrics such as their sales figures or the performance they agreed to improve after their last evaluation.
  • Instead of accusing them of a poor attitude, cite concrete examples like coming to work late, failure to adhere to company policy, or instances when they missed an important team meeting or deadline.
  • Especially when employees are defensive they will ask for concrete examples. So do your homework. Make sure that for every point you attempt to make you have these kinds of objective facts ready to support your point of view and build a more persuasive case.

3. To Get Good Answers Ask Great Questions

When I was a senior executive at Macy’s I’d use this line as a key to unlock the conversation and open the door to meaningful dialog:
“Tell me how you feel about how you are doing in your job.”
Once they started explaining themselves it broke the ice. They became relaxed and receptive instead of uptight and defensive.

  • Oftentimes when I asked that question they would suddenly reach conclusions on their own. Maybe they realized as they spoke that they needed to improve their performance, and that they wanted my help, suggestions, and feedback about how to make that happen.
  • At that point we could focus on their future with a positive outlook. At other times an underperformer would be answering this question and it would suddenly become clear to them that the job wasn’t really right for them and that they would be happier elsewhere.
  • But rather than blaming me for pointing out the hard truth of the situation they were relieved and grateful that I lent a sympathetic ear and allowed them to clarify things and get to the root of their problem.

Here are other examples of how to initiate conversations:

  • “We need to discuss your recent evaluation. But before we do I want to know if there are any specific things that you think I can do or help you with, in order to boost your productivity.”
  • “I want to take this opportunity to hear your ideas and get a better understanding of your perspective regarding your work here. How do you view your contribution and performance?”

“Please tell me what you think about your role on the team and how that’s been working out for you so far.”

Hopefully by having productive conversations with your employees you’ll be able to convert poor performers into solid contributors. Having the skills to develop people and bring out their full potential is, after all, the best way in the world to make your mark within an industry as a valuable leader.

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Sarah Hathorn
Sarah Hathorn, CEO of Hathorn Consulting Group, is the go-to-expert in working with leaders and companies to create successful corporate DNA. As an executive coach, consultant and speaker she collaborates globally with clients and brands such as Kimberly-Clark, Sherwin-Williams, Home Depot and other leading organizations.
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