How to Handle those Tough Performance Conversations

For a couple of decades, I began every supervisory skills class by asking the participants what they wanted to learn most. “How to talk to team members about behavior and performance” was always at the top of the list. Here’s what you need to know if you want to do that part of your job well.

Prepare the Ground

The time to start laying the groundwork for a successful conversation about performance is every day before you must have that conversation. These conversations are much more likely to turn out well when you and your team member have established a relationship of trust before you have to talk about a difficult subject.

Do what great bosses do. Touch base a lot. When you touch base, have conversations. Those conversations can be about work, but most of them should be about other matters. That’s how you build relationships, and strong relationships give people the trust to listen to what you’re saying.

Don’t Wait

Have a conversation about performance or behavior as soon as possible after you know it’s necessary. Performance and behavior issues are not self-healing. Left to themselves, they will go from bad to worse and your conversations will become more difficult.

Have A Conversation About One Specific Issue

Do not bundle things together and expect the conversation to end well. Have a conversation about one issue or incident.

Tailor Your Conversation to The Person

If you spent the time touching base a lot, having conversations, and building relationships, you’ll know how your team members differ from each other. Use that knowledge to increase the odds of a good outcome.

Your Goals

Your goal is to have a conversation that results in a positive change in behavior or performance. Conversations are two-way. Your other goal is to have the conversation end with your team member thinking about what will change, not about how you treated them.

Rules of Engagement

Start by describing why you’re having the conversation in terms of what you’re going to discuss and why it matters. Be as non-judgmental as possible. The easiest way to do that is to describe the issue and its impact without using any adjectives. This will be hard at first, but you can master the technique.

The Really Hard Part

Once you’ve made your one or two-sentence statement of what you’re going to talk about and why, shut up. Be quiet. Don’t talk. Wait for your team member to talk next.

If you’re a manager in North America, that will probably be very hard for you. We are bred and trained to get right to it, and we hate dead air. But you’ll have more success with this kind of conversation if you allow the other person to speak next, no matter how uncomfortable that makes you.

Don’t Declare Victory Too Soon

When you get to the conversation stage, you’ll be tempted to wrap things up sooner than you need to. Resist the temptation. Let the conversation proceed until it naturally winds down. Then summarize the situation before you part ways.

Specify and agree to what will change, when it will change, and how both you and your team member will know it’s changed. Otherwise, the conversation you’ve just had was more like social chit-chat than a performance conversation.

Write Up Your Agreement

After the conversation is over, make notes about what you and your teammate have agreed to. Share what you’ve got with your team member and make any changes necessary.

Follow Up

You’re still not done. You need to follow up to see that the agreement has turned into an actual change in behavior or performance. Otherwise, you need to loop around and have another conversation.

Bottom Line

Conversations about performance or behavior are more likely to be successful if you’ve already established a trusting relationship with a team member. Then, you can take steps to make sure that what you have is a conversation and not a supervisory monologue. Finally, you need to make sure you and your team member both agree to what’s going to change and then follow up to make sure it happens.

There are lots of tips about performance conversations in my ebook, Become a Better Boss One Tip at a Time.