How to talk to a team member about their performance issues

May 6, 2022
min read

You’ve got an employee who isn’t stepping up to the plate. You know you need to address it – if you don’t, your credibility and the quality of your team’s output will suffer. But how do you go about the conversation?

Every manager has had to have a tough talk with an employee about their performance, it’s what comes with being a people leader. Sometimes it’s in the context of projects or annual performance reviews, other times it may be the final warning prior to termination. 

Regardless, preparation is necessary to avoid risk, and to ensure everyone involved feels safe and comfortable. So, here are some tips for having a productive conversation about poor performance

Reasons for performance issues

There are several reasons why your underperforming employee could be disengaged, and the only way to improve their performance is to pinpoint and understand those reasons. 

Your people need to have the ability to perform the tasks required to do their job successfully, but they also need the motivation to do so. Do they feel supported? Are you giving them the room to challenge themselves within their role? How often are you checking in with them and providing feedback? It’s also important to ask yourself how long this has been going on. The good thing is that some performance issues are temporary – maybe your employee is experiencing personal issues they haven’t brought to light. 

The point is, there are a number of reasons why an employee could be underperforming. As a people manager, it’s your responsibility to create a safe space to work through these issues. 

Do it sooner rather than later

Understandably, many of us have the urge to avoid uncomfortable conversations for as long as possible. But it’s unlikely that poor performance will fix itself, and with each second you put off, that’s more room for productivity to remain stagnant and for you to dread the talk even more. Don’t delay.

Stay professional and respectful

It may go without saying, but a respectful, professional approach is a requirement for any poor performance conversation. If you find you’ve been frustrated by this employee’s performance, learn to check those emotions at the door to avoid negativity setting the tone of your chat. Not doing so can lead to resentment, and possibly even legal issues

Creating a safe space is key here. You can make already uncomfortable conversations worse by making the employee feel as if they’re being attacked, as it’s possible the employee will get defensive and argumentative. Your meetings should be fact-based – avoid saying “I’m disappointed” or “I feel” to keep away from leading with emotion.

Write down your talking points

When we’re having difficult conversations, we may unknowingly use distancing language or beat around the bush. Getting to the root of the issue requires being direct and clear. 

We recommend preparing two documents – one with your talking points and the other, a list of discussion items for the employee. You’ve (likely) spent a considerable amount of time organizing your thoughts about the situation prior to your chat, so it’s a good idea to give the heads up with context so you can get straight to it when it’s time. 

Give examples of their shortcomings

When it comes time to discuss your observations, don’t be vague. During your conversation, identify where the employee’s performance has fallen short by pointing to concrete examples. The key here is to focus on facts, not opinions. 

Listen to their side

Give the employee an opportunity to talk. Sometimes they may provide context as to why they are underperforming. This is an opportunity to attempt to find out if they are aware of their poor performance, and have them explain where they think it’s coming from.

It’s also a good idea here to ask for feedback. See if the employee agrees with your criticism, or if they had issues with how you handled the situation. This will further promote a safe space, and allow you to improve the way you approach future tough conversations. 

Make your expectations clear

Now that you’ve identified the performance concerns and given the employee the opportunity to speak, it’s time to clarify your expectations. 

Remember, the goal here is to improve performance, not scold the employee. We’d all probably prefer if the reason for the performance issue was merely expectations being unclear. But even if the conversation doesn’t go that way, you can still use the opportunity to make sure the employee’s role and responsibilities are mutually understood. 

Focus on how they can improve

Don’t tell a bad performer “you’re a bad performer.” This doesn’t give any room for a productive conversation to dig into the root of the issue, and it’s possible the employee could become defensive. 

Instead, wrap up the conversation by asking them how they plan to bring their performance up to standard. Then, fill in the gaps based on what they share, and agree on a timeline and communication plan to carry things out. 

Set a follow up date

The work isn’t done after the conversation happens and the action plan is established. As soon as the employee agrees to work toward improving their performance, set a follow-up date to discuss progress. 

Be quick to offer kudos when you recognize improvement, and stick to planned follow-ups and consistent performance reviews moving forward. Doing so will remove any pressure surrounding surprise check-ins, and demonstrates that you’re interested in your peoples’ professional development, not just their poor performance. 

Easily manage your employees with Humi

To learn more about how you can build a culture of high performance and adopt a feedback culture at your company with Humi, connect with our team

For insight into relevant and raw people challenges, and the tools you need to continuously shape the future of work, subscribe to Think with Humi – your number one people newsletter written by a real HR expert and Humi’s Director of People Operations, Andrea Bartlett.

P.S. Keep an eye out on our Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn for quality articles published frequently.  

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