Adventures In Communication: How to Talk to Employees When They Are Missing the Mark

Business.com / Managing / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Employees often need guidance and constructive feedback to improve their professional development skills. Check out our top tips!

Leaders in today’s workplace are tasked with managing a variety of personnel with varying work styles and skill sets.

In an ideal world, none of them would underperform and require the often uncomfortable but necessary conversation regarding their work performance.

It is only human to be adverse to confrontation but unfortunately, this is part of any manager's job. Employees often need guidance and constructive feedback to improve their professional development skills.

What follows are some of the recommended strategies for communicating effectively but not offensively with employees who are missing the mark.

Direct, Honest and Timely Communication

If asked, most managers will agree that it is important to be up-front and very specific with underperforming employees, giving them honest and constructive feedback about their performance. When doing so, provide examples of how their work has changed or isn’t measuring up to expectations as opposed to speaking in generalities.

In these situations, time is of the essence. The longer the situation goes unaddressed, the more challenging it may be to resolve. The earlier these types of interactions happen, the less likely an employee may see them as punitive and the more likely they may be to view the discussion as proof that they’re in an environment that promotes professional growth.

It can be beneficial to illustrate to the employee how their performance affects their team or the business at large and even their long-term employment security. Some managers use visual tools to be as clear as possible, such as taking notes and outlining key points on a whiteboard during the conversation.

Related Article: Manager, Coach or Mentor? Different Roles for Different Goals

Ask and Listen

Soliciting input from the employee during the discussion is important to successfully create an engaging conversation about their performance. The key here is that it should be a true two-sided conversation. The employee should feel safe to express himself or herself and the manager should actively listen and respond.

Active listening will ensure the employee feels heard when they express their concerns and needs. This may also provide the manager with valuable information about why the employee is underperforming and stimulate ideas about potential solutions.

Through asking, managers can learn more about the work environment and potentially identify larger workplace issues that may need to be addressed.

Develop a Solution Together

If an employee is given an opportunity to brainstorm solutions with their managers, they will be more invested in the outcome and work more genuinely toward improving their performance. For this reason, many managers suggest developing performance goals that are agreed upon by both the employee and manager. Be sure to document these goals to ensure everyone has a clear understanding of expectations.

Asking employees about their own professional goals can shed light on the source of the problem and help managers support employee growth.

One reason employees are not hitting performance goals can be due to the fact that their role is not a good fit for them, so it may be necessary to evaluate if the employee is in the appropriate role for their skills and interests.

If the current role doesn’t align with the employee’s professional aspirations, they may never be properly motivated. Brainstorming ideas together can help tailor the employee’s workload with their interests (if possible).

Related Article: 5 Innovative Ways to Improve Employee Engagement for Millennials

Follow-Up and Support

Follow-up and follow-through on the manager’s part are important as it demonstrates a commitment to supporting the employee’s success and also establishes a culture of accountability. An effective manager will be self-reflective when considering underperforming employees’ needs and look for ways they can support their continued growth and success.

When setting goals for performance improvement, it is essential to determine what kind of support the employee will need to succeed and how often they will need it. Without a clearly outlined follow-up plan, an employee won’t get the feedback they need to understand if they are making progress with their goals. A manager may provide weekly or daily support depending on the need.

Acknowledge Efforts

Receiving even the most empathetic and compassionate constructive criticism can still be a difficult conversation for the average employee. Therefore, it is crucial that managers recognize and acknowledge when employees are making strides in their performance. Recognition for their hard work will encourage continued progress and commitment to reaching performance goals.

Incentivizing progress is one approach a manager can use to motivate and improve employee morale though never underestimate the power of genuine appreciation in the form of private or public recognition.

Taking Formal Action

Sometimes dedicated support and coaching may not result in an employee’s improved performance. In these instances, it is important to take corrective action to address the matter. Chronically underperforming employees who are non-compliant or not coachable, and who continue to be employed, can have a toxic effect on employee morale and overall company efficiency.

Keeping clear documentation of underperformance, agreed-upon goals, and continued underperformance will help substantiate a manager’s case if termination is necessary.

Addressing employees’ poor performance is most managers’ least favorite aspect of supervising others. Without overcomplicating or procrastinating and using the basic tips mentioned above, managers can approach these difficult conversations with compassion and expect positive outcomes as a result.

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