No one likes to engage in “uncomfortable” or “difficult” conversations. Unfortunately, these conversations are sometimes necessary—particularly when team members fail to meet an agreed-upon set of targets and goals. In these cases, it’s important for the manager or supervisor to carefully think about what they intend to say and how they will communicate with the employee or team about what went wrong, and offer feasible solutions to the problem.
And, as with other things in work and life, putting off the conversation only makes the situation worse.
Here are tips on how to have that uncomfortable conversation and generate positive results from the experience:
Establish goals and revisit them.
Often, employers determine a fresh set of goals with employees at the start of a new year. Nothing wrong with that, unless these goals are neglected as time goes on.
“Improving employee performance means re-examining and readjusting goals,” notes Insperity. This approach keeps awareness of goals high throughout the year. Since “success is a moving target,” you must “be able to quickly adjust your sights, or you’ll miss it.”
Plan the setting and timing.
Don’t leave an uncomfortable conversation to chance. Think about what you intend to say and where the dialogue will happen. It can take place in a manager’s office but seeking out a more neutral venue—a local restaurant or even a walk through the business park—might ease the tensions implicit in the forthcoming conversation.
Also, be mindful of the timing. Consider what’s going to happen from the employee’s perspective. “How would you like the news delivered to you?” asks Staff Leasing. “Probably not in a surprise calendar invite from your boss titled ‘Urgent Disciplinary Meeting’ for 4:30 p.m. on a Friday.”
Get to the point and be specific.
When the conversation gets underway, don’t beat around the bush with small talk about the weather or how the employee’s weekend went. Get to the point.
In a conversation about missed targets and goals, generalities won’t work. Provide specific examples of where the employee fell short, so there’s no confusion about why this conversation is happening.
Leave emotions out of the equation.
A challenging conversation only becomes more challenging if emotions are allowed to creep in. An employee will naturally be defensive about their work record, so be mindful of the words you choose, the tone in your voice, other aspects of body language, and so on.
Do your best “to avoid blaming or starting sentences with ‘you’ or ‘you always,’ and instead use ‘I feel’ or ‘I have noticed,’” advises Continuity. Also, stay away from dead-end phrases “such as ‘You always,’ ‘You never,’ and ‘Just forget it.’”
Give employees a chance to respond.
Remember, we are talking about conversations, not a one-sided monologue. As the discussion continues, “invite the employee to share their thoughts or reactions, and to raise any operational issues they’re experiencing that might contribute to unsatisfactory performance.” Make clear you’re open to any questions they might have about the topic at hand.
Focus on solutions.
As noted, assigning blame is counter-productive. Far better is arriving at one or more solutions to the employee’s record of under-performance. Be prepared with suggestions for improvement, and a realistic timetable for the employee to adjust their work patterns and move more efficiently towards the company’s goals and objectives.
Finally, don’t allow the difficult conversation to exist in a void. Look for opportunities to check in regularly. Ask the employee or team member if there’s anything you can do to support their efforts. Reinforce your conviction that they are up to the challenge of meeting performance targets. A vote of confidence from you is often the best incentive you can provide to change the situation for the better.