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June 4, 2020

How to Talk to Team Members About Poor Performance

 |  By: Sara Schafer

Every team has one. That employee who is not contributing his or her fair share. The rest of the team knows this person is a poor performer. You can try to sweep the employee’s bad behavior under the rug, but that only makes it acceptable.

As the boss, you must coach this employee to be an all-star — or show them the door. Here’s a step-by-step process to help guide you through these tough conversations. 

1. State the behavior and outcomes. You owe it to the employee be honest and let them know what the conversation is about, says Bob Grace, a leadership and organizational development consultant with The Leadership Effect in St. Louis, Mo. You don’t want them to feel threatened, but you must be direct. Stick to the facts. 

2. Allow for reaction. This is the most commonly skipped step, Grace explains. “We don’t give people much time to react,” he says. “You have had time to move from emotion to reason, but the other person has not had time to react.” 

After you state the poor behavior, stop for a little bit of silence. Grace suggests asking: What do you think? What is your reaction to this? 

3. Agree on ownership of the problem. “The first time someone shows me that they don’t know how to do something, that is reflective of the leader,” says Dave Mitchell, founder of Walla Walla, Wash.-based consulting firm The Leadership Difference. “So that’s my fault. The second time is our fault, as they share some accountability. If there is a skill the employee doesn’t have, he or she needs to tell me.”

The third time, it is the employee’s fault, Mitchell says. “If you have that model, you don’t fire people—they fire themselves,” he says. 

4. Discuss new outcomes and behaviors. Clearly state what a better outcome would look like and what behaviors could close the gap between what you need as a boss and how the employee is performing, Grace says. 

5. Select a course of action. Outline the plan to better performance. Include a timeline and milestones, Grace says. 

6. Express confidence change can be made. “Your goal as a leader is to make sure your team has high levels of self-efficacy,” Mitchell says.

Self-efficacy is having confidence in your own ability to achieve results. “Basically, it’s the feeling that I’ve got this,” Mitchell says.

Train and encourage your team and let them know it’s OK to make mistakes.

7. Follow-up on the plan with the employee. This step is critical, Grace says. Put the follow-up meetings on your calendar and keep your own copy of action steps and timelines. 

8. Celebrate and recognize progress. Once an employee is on the right track, look for opportunities acknowledge it, Grace says. “Say thank you and tell them they are doing a good job.”