One of the most difficult conversations most managers ever have is when they need to meet with an employee to discuss a performance problem.  Most managers either put this discussion off altogether (just hoping against hope it will go away), or so clearly mismanage the discussion that the employee leaves feeling demoralized and unmotivated.  However, the following three strategies can help you the next time you find yourself needing to coach an employee to improve.

  1. Focus on specific performance issues, not personality.  You may just know that the performance issue is obvious to the employee, but that is frequently not the case.  It can be very tempting to use general language like “not a team player”, or “attitude problem”, but the other party will not understand what you mean.  They will probably get defensive and then you have immediately lost any hope of having a positive outcome.  So make sure you are clear and specific when describing the problem.  Instead of complaining that they were not a team player, say instead “When you missed the deadline by 2 days, it caused the whole team to be behind on this project”.  As a result, you will be focusing on the performance issue in a clear way and not making what can be perceived as a personality attack.
  2. Encourage the employee to take ownership for solving the problem.  One of the best ways to do this is to ask him or her what suggestions they have for improving.  This puts the responsibility on their back, and not on yours.  By engaging them in the solution, you are encouraging ownership of not just the problem but also the solution.  This gives them the opportunity to feel more empowered and willing to make a change.  Your goal is not to assign blame or make someone feel guilty; your goal is to improve the problem in the future.
  3. Set a follow-up date.  It can be tempting a heave a sigh of relief when you get to the end of the performance discussion and pat yourself on the back for accomplishing the first 2 strategies.  But if you end the conversation there, even though it went well, it will not be successful.  There is a strong likelihood that the employee may leave with all the best intentions, but can loose focus when meeting the rest of their daily demands.  To keep them on track, you will want to make sure you set a specific follow-up date and time to measure improvement.  Do not say “Let’s review this sometime next month” or you can both get distracted.  Instead schedule a specific date and time to monitor progress.  This will ensure the employee understands how important this issue is to you, and the results achieved will be significantly higher.

In short, performance discussions do not have to be daunting.  Instead, they are a real gift to an employee when the manager conducts them effectively.

Learn more about our Managing Performance Discussions courseware.

Author's Bio: 

Susan Cullen is President of Quantum Learning Solutions, Inc. She specializes in helping managers develop a committed, engaged, highly productive workforce. Susan has a Master's Degree in Organizational Development and over 18 years experience in workforce development and learning. For more information, contact 1-800-683-0681 or