Addressing Poor Performance is a “Moment of Trust” – 5 Steps for Success

Addressing poor performance with an employee presents a leader with a “moment of trust” – an opportunity to either build or erode trust in the relationship. If you handle the situation with competence and care, the level of trust in your relationship can take a leap forward. Fumble the opportunity and you can expect to lose trust and confidence in your leadership.

Now, I’m the first to admit that having a discussion about an employee’s failing performance is probably the last thing I want to do as a leader. It’s awkward and uncomfortable for both parties involved. I mean, come one, no one likes to hear they aren’t doing a good job. But the way in which the feedback and coaching is delivered can make a huge difference. The key is to have a plan and process to follow. The following steps can help you capitalize on the moment of trust and get an employee’s performance back on track.

1. Prepare – Before you have the performance discussion, you need to make sure you’re prepared. Collect the facts or data that support your assessment of the employee’s low performance. Be sure to analyze the problem by asking yourself questions like:

        1. Was the goal clear?
        2. Was the right training, tools, and resources provided?
        3. Did I provide the right leadership style?
        4. Did the employee receiving coaching and feedback along the way?
        5. Was the employee motivated and confident to achieve the goal?
        6. Did the employee have any personal problems that impacted performance?

2. Describe the problem – State the purpose and ground rules of the meeting. It could sound something like “Susan, I’d like to talk to you about the problem you’re having with the defect rate of your widgets. I’ll give you my take on the problem and then I’d like to hear your perspective.”

Be specific in describing the problem, using the data you’ve collected or the behaviors you’ve observed. Illustrate the gap in performance by explaining what the performance or behavior should be and state what you want to happen now. It could sound something like “In the last week your defect rate has been 18% instead of your normal 10% or less. As I look at all the variables of the situation, I realize you’ve had some new people working on the line, and in a few instances, you haven’t had the necessary replacement parts you’ve needed. Obviously we need to get your rate back under 10%.”

3. Explore and acknowledge their viewpoint – This step involves you soliciting the input of the employee to get their perspective on the cause of the performance problem. Despite the information you’ve collected, you may learn something new about what could be causing or contributing to the decline in performance. Depending on the employee’s attitude, you may need to be prepared for defensiveness or excuses about the performance gap. Keep the conversation focused on the issue at hand and solicit the employee’s ideas for solving the problem.

4. Summarize the problem and causes – Identify points of disagreement that may exist, but try to emphasize the areas of agreement between you and the employee. When you’ve summarized the problem and main causes, ask if the two of you have enough agreement to move to problem solving. It could sound something like “Susan, we both agree that we need to get your defect rate to 10% or below and that you’ve had a few obstacles in your way like new people on the line and occasionally missing replacement parts. Where we see things differently is that I believe you don’t always have your paperwork, parts, and tools organized in advance the way you used to. While we don’t see the problem exactly the same, are we close enough to work on a solution?”

5. Problem solve for the solution – Once you’ve completed step four, you can then problem solve for specific solutions to close the performance gap. Depending on the employee’s level of competence and commitment on the goal or task, you may need to use more or less direction or support to help guide the problem solving process. The outcome of the problem solving process should be specific goals, actions, or strategies that you and/or the employee will put in place to address the performance problem. Set a schedule for checking in on the employee’s progress and be sure to thank them and express a desire for the performance to improve.

A moment of trust is a precious occurrence that you don’t want to waste. Using this five step process can help you address an employee’s poor performance with candor and care that will leave the employee knowing that you respect their dignity, value their contributions, and have their best interests at heart. That can’t help but build trust in the relationship.

About Randy Conley

Randy is the Vice President of Client Services & Trust Practice Leader for The Ken Blanchard Companies. He works with clients around the globe helping them design & deliver training and consulting solutions that build trust in the workplace and oversees Blanchard's client delivery operations. He has been named a Top 100 Thought Leader in Trustworthy Business Behavior by Trust Across America. Randy holds a Masters Degree in Executive Leadership from the University of San Diego and enjoys spending time with his family, bike riding, and playing golf. You can follow Randy on Twitter @RandyConley where he shares thoughts on leadership and trust.
This entry was posted in Communication, Defining Moments, Feedback, Leadership, Performance Management. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Addressing Poor Performance is a “Moment of Trust” – 5 Steps for Success

  1. Ellyn McKay says:

    Helpful blog in that the steps provide a positive/future-focused framework for someone who is facing this – it is intimidating and unpleasant.

    With respect to step #2, I almost always advise my clients to allow the employee to speak first by asking an open-ended question. For example, “Susan,I’m sure you’ve noticed that your defect rate has increased. What’s happening?” This has two advantages, (1) the boss gets useful “data” – knowing where the employee is coming from before tipping his/her own hand is usually helpful; (2) generally, the employee appreciates being asked their view on the matter before getting “dumped on” – it increases trust and often results in at least some buy-in (at the end of the day, if the employee leaves voluntarily or involuntarily, ensuring they leave with their dignity and self-respect in-tact is critical for ALL kinds of reasons — not the least of which is legal cover). After quickly digesting what the employee has to say, the boss can say, “very helpful to hear your perspective and I’d like to take a few minutes to share how I see things”.

    In Step #5, while you imply it, there is no question that this all needs to be put in writing (again, follow-up and legal cover). For this step, I might also suggest that at the initial discussion the boss/employee collaborate to identify some preliminary goals and that the employee is then charged with going back and fleshing them out to the SMART level. Again, buy-in and measuring are good! Thanks!

    • Randy Conley says:

      Hi Ellyn. Those are wonderful additions to the steps I outlined. As you pointed out, it is very important to document your actions in writing so that you have a record of the efforts you’ve made…unfortunately that’s one of the more mundane aspects to being a manager, isn’t it?!

      Thanks again for your insightful comments. Please visit regularly!

      Randy

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  5. Wow! The steps you’ve suggested are spot on and will, no doubt, build trust and allow the employee to take ownership of her performance issues.

    I think back to a time I had to discuss a performance issue with an employee and I cringe. I wish I had these tips then!

    I can also think of a time or two a performance issue was discussed with me and I would have appreciated the opportunity to have the type of honest and collaborative conversation you’ve suggested here.

    Thanks for the wisdom and leadership!

    Have a grateful day!

    Chrysta

    • Randy Conley says:

      Hello Chrysta,

      Thanks for your positive comments. I’ve had my share of those rough performance conversations (on both sides) and wish I had known these things at the time too!

      Take care,

      Randy

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  12. Shima Rahman says:

    Dear Randy,

    Great post !
    I am writing for your permission to include this article in our monthly e-Mag, Guild of HR e-Mag, a free online magazine distributed to HR Practitioners, mainly from the APAC region.

    Let me know if you’re keen for us to take this forward.

    Thanks !

    Regards,
    Shima Rahman
    Editor, Guild of HR e-Mag
    HR REPUBLIC
    Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

    • Randy Conley says:

      Hello Shima,

      I would be happy for you to include this article in your monthly magazine. I would appreciate it if you would be so kind as to provide the proper citation in your magazine (author & website).

      I’m glad you found it helpful!

      Best regards,

      Randy

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