One of the most difficult conversations a manager must ever have with an employee is coaching them when a performance problem exists. Many managers put this discussion off altogether, or handle it ineffectively. As a result, the employee never gets the coaching needed, and performance does not improve.

It’s important to recognize before you begin that not every performance issue is caused by an employee. Sometimes a managerial issue or organizational impediment could be at the root of the problems. Determine if there is something else that might have contributed to the problem before you begin your discussion. The employee may also be able to provide insight into this during the discussion.

There are 3 critical elements that must be present in any discussion a manager has to improve the performance of their employees. They are:

  1. Address the performance issue, not the employee. It’s important to separate the behavior from the person in order for the conversation to go well. Make sure to stay focused on the specific behavior that needs to improve, and don’t address personal characteristics or personality.
  2. Focus on specifics instead of vague generalities. When you say something like “You just need to be a better team player”, the employee really will not know what you mean. It’s not addressing a specific behavior that needs to improve, such as coming to meetings on time, offering to help complete a task requested, or completing an identified report accurately. As a result, the response you will mostly like receive will be defensive. The employee may think they are a good team player and dispute what you are saying. Once either party becomes defensive, you will have a much more difficult time arriving at any mutual understanding to improve performance.
  3. Ask the employee to make suggestions for improvement. This is one of the most critical elements because it engages the employee in finding a solution. When they are able to provide their own suggestions, they have more ownership in solving the problem. When they are not able to provide their own suggestions and just told what to do, they may oblige but do so grudgingly. Telling an employee what to do can frequently cause them to feel as if they are being talked down to or treated like a child. As a result, true motivation for solving the problem will not be theirs.


Make sure you are including these 3 elements in any conversation you have with an employee to improve performance. When you do, the employee will not only be more likely to improve the behavior you are addressing, but feel more motivated to do so consistently in the future.

How You Can Learn to Improve Employee Performance

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Author's Bio: 

Susan Cullen is President of Quantum Learning Solutions, based outside of Philadelphia. She helps organizations build a more productive and committed workforce. To learn more, contact or 800-683-0681.