Six scripts for talking about performance problems

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.

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.