The 1 Thing Every Employee Needs That Most Bosses Don’t Know How to Give

Challenging ConversationsEvery employee needs candid (yet caring) feedback about her performance, but most bosses shudder in fear at the thought of having that tough conversation.

I’m the first to admit that having a discussion about an employee’s failing performance is one of the most unpleasant things a leader has to do; 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 balance toughness with tenderness and get an employee’s performance back on track while preserving, or even building trust in the process.

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, or 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.

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.

16 Comments on “The 1 Thing Every Employee Needs That Most Bosses Don’t Know How to Give

  1. You might also consider asking the employee if he or she can think of anything you might do (or provide) as the supervisor that would help support a change in the employee’s performance.

    • Great addition Gary, I completely agree. Leaders need to consider what they are/aren’t doing to help an employee succeed.

      Thanks for commenting.


  2. Great process and steps, Randy. Being fully aware is another element to keep in mind. How we are presenting ourselves will say a lot, too. Are we closed? Are we relaxed? Are we making eye contact? Another mindful elements that are important to listen and engage the team member. Watching for their nonverbal queues is as important as well.

    Appreciate your insights here. Thank you! Jon

    • Excellent additions Jon. It’s so important to be both self aware and in tune with the emotions and baldy language of the employee. Thanks for calling those out so we can all benefit from the additional learning.

      Take care,


  3. Hi Randy
    Your solution process is a little bit similar to the one Marshall Rosenberg teaches in his non-violent communication. Very wise but you run the risk that I a might apply for a job in your department 🙂
    Have a great week.

    • Hi Brigitte! I’m not familiar with Rosenberg but will look him up (and you’re always welcome to apply!).

      Best regards,


      • Thanks, Randy. I see your company is as well in Munich/Germany which is about 3 hours from Zurich 🙂

  4. Really excellent post, Randy. Effectively giving feedback is often the last thing leaders/managers do because it is so difficult. Your post simplifies the process so that even the most reluctant should be able to get it right.

    • Thanks for your comments Pat! Yes, giving negative feedback can be difficult, but following a plan and process makes it easier.


  5. An excellent article in that it provides an interactive framework for both individuals. There remains a hint of top-down placing the burden on the employee; this may not be relevant, with organisations getting “flatter” and more transparent. In the service the employee is both the cost and the product, and a mobile one at that, hence a replacement cost if it it may walk; there has to be a resource-commitment from both the manager and the employee towards the solution, or the process will dissipate into idle chit-chat. Such a commitment should also be sufficiently transparent so as motivate other colleagues that all may observe and learn.

    • Good point Mauro. There needs to be mutual commitment on both sides toward the long term benefit of the relationship.


  6. What great information! These steps would be so helpful to those going to a supervisory class. I also found that along with the constructive criticism, the plan for improvement and follow up, a healthy dose of positive actions won’t leave them feeling like they need to pound sand. Thank you for giving me other avenues to try!


  7. Pingback: How to Give Negative Feedback

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