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How to discuss performance problems with employees

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills,Performance Reviews

You may dread confronting employees face to face about performance issues.

But employees are far more likely to accept your critique and commit to improvement if you present those problems in a fair, concrete and "problem-solving" manner. Use these six tips as a framework to guide your discussion:

1. Describe the problem in specific, nonjudgmental terms. Use clear language that focuses on results and behavior. Don't focus on personality, don't overgeneralize and don't assign blame. Be specific and target your criticism to the behavior, not the person.

Notice the difference in these statements:

  • Instead of saying, "Your work's been really sloppy lately," say, "Your last three reports have contained an unacceptable number of statistical errors."
  • Instead of making accusations, such as, "Don't you bother to proofread anything you write anymore?," ask the employee to explain ("Is there some reason these errors are occurring?") and ask how you can help improve performance ("How can we prevent these errors in your reports?")

2. Reinforce performance standards. A productive discussion can become sidetracked if you keep talking about why you require a certain performance standard, rather than why the employee's performance hasn't met that standard.

If the employee challenges the standard's validity, calmly state your reasons for requiring it, and gently steer the conversation back to the reasons why the employee didn't comply. If necessary, refer to employees' job descriptions to confirm their responsibilities.

3. Develop an improvement plan. Agree on a method for improving performance in the short run, and establish further options in case the first method proves ineffective. Offer to help in whatever way you can. Show your commitment by helping employees obtain the necessary resources or training. Explain that you'll be closely observing their progress.

4. Set a specific improvement goal. Develop a time line for improvement that incorporates specific parameters and sets realistic deadlines.

Phrase performance objectives in a positive way. Ask employees to do more of something, rather than less. Instead of "reducing statistical errors," talk about "increasing statistical accuracy." You can continue to measure accuracy in errors, but focus on what employees are doing right rather than what they're doing wrong.

In setting performance goals, leave room for the employee to exceed expectations. For example, a short-term goal might be to "increase statistical accuracy in weekly reports to no more than one error." That way, if the employee makes no errors, he or she has gone above and beyond what you require. The long-term goal can be to eliminate errors completely.

5. Alternate negative and positive comments. If you need to address a long list of performance problems, try to interject a few positive comments along the way. It can be especially instructive for the employee to hear examples of superior performance that require skills and strengths you believe are underutilized in other areas.

6. Listen to the employee's response. The worst mistake you can make in such meetings is to do all the talking. By listening closely to the employee's response, you can help identify the reason for the poor performance and can begin to explore a solution.

Setting the right atmosphere

Performance-related meetings and performance reviews are emotionally charged events. You can help reduce the tensions by choosing the right time, place and surroundings:

The best time. Use common sense in scheduling the meeting. Don't try to squeeze it in between two other meetings or just before lunch. Ask the employee if the time you've chosen is convenient, and be ready to change it.

The best place. Never hold performance meetings from behind your desk in your office. You don't need to remind your employees that you're the boss. Like any strategic planning meeting, hold it in a private, neutral environment.

The best attitude. Approach the meeting as a joint session designed to make corrections and plan for the future. You have the opportunity to act as coach and mentor to bring out the best in your staff.

The best atmosphere. Do everything possible to ensure that you won't be interrupted. Have calls held or forwarded to voice mail. Have the employee make arrangements, too, so that no one comes looking for him. You want to create an environment that supports discussion and cooperation.

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