Starting a Conversation About Poor Work Performance
05 November 2019

Under- performance – poorly-performing employees – lack of competence

Many managers have a dread of having to tell one of their team members that they’re under-performing. It’s understandable; nobody wants to upset the under-performing team member, or other team members and they fear being accused of bullying behaviour (NB raising and discussing under-performance is NOT bullying so long as it is appropriately done). Often matters are just left, to the long-term detriment of the team and the team’s productivity. It’s very common.

Managers must manage workplace issues – that’s not negotiable – so try something different. Ask the team member to assess their own performance rather than just saying you they are underperforming. The response will help you understand how the individual sees their current performance and with that information you’re better able to decide on what steps to take next.

Ask how your employee thinks they’re doing on their goals. As well as giving an overall assessment, ask them to list the ways in which they measure and assess their performance. Once you know to what extent your expectations are aligned with your team member’s you be able to see what you need to communicate.

Sometimes, they’ll see things in the same light as you, and you can quickly move on to the next steps of your plan. Sometimes you might be in partial agreement. In this case, you just point out additional areas where you think they’re falling short.

If they think they’re doing OK, you must let them know that you have a different view. Provide factual information on why you think there are some issues. Suggest that you explore with them where you might be missing information and where they might need to do things differently.

Help your employee understand your thinking by being clear about what’s going wrong. Describe specific examples and behaviours you have observed. Telling someone, “You’re slow to respond,” is vague and doesn’t outline a clear path for change. But if you tell them, “I’ve noticed you haven’t responded to half my emails, and it has taken a week for you to respond to three others,” they can make a connection between what they’re doing and your expectations.

Once you’ve explored the areas of concern and flagged that your employee’s performance needs improvement, you can agree a list of clear, measurable expectations and outline areas that are not negotiable.

When you’re dealing with poor performance, agree incremental objectives which increase over a period of time so that the team member meets and maintains the standards required over period of two or three months. The first stage should be the easiest but is often the hardest too, because the team member must get used to the idea of stretching to meet the challenge.

You’ll find that employees will be more motivated to improve their performance if it’s tied to something they want. By asking your employee for their thoughts, you might also discover you hadn’t appreciated the amount of work involved in a project. In this case, you can agree more realistic goals and determine what help is needed from you. By asking questions, you collaborate instead of dictate — thereby increasing your team member’s motivation to meet their goals.

Close the conversation by asking your employee what can be done to get their performance back on track. Fill in the gaps based on what they share and agree on a timeline and communication plan. Also, be sure to clarify how long they have to achieve specific results and what will happen if they don’t succeed.

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Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this blog, nothing herein should be construed as giving advice and no responsibility will be taken for inaccuracies or errors.

Copyright © 2023 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.