Mastering the difficult talk: discussing low performance

By Eliza Marie

For any employee, dips in performance are inevitable, in part because of factors like fatigue and stress. The challenge, therefore, is to help them by:

  1. Calling attention to underperforming team members in due time

  2. Talking to the team member involved

  3. Recommending ways to rectify the problem, and

  4. Limiting underperformance in general

Ensuring you have a feedback culture in place

In order to identify performance issues in time, you first need to be sharing real-time feedback. We discussed some of the barriers to giving feedback and covered that in order to determine how people are performing, everyone needs to feel comfortable sharing feedback with each other on a regular basis. You can do this by helping people develop their conversational skills.

For HR, feedback is crucial in evaluating performance. When you need to deal with an underperforming employee, there are two immediate goals:

  1. Inform them they have not been performing, emphasizing the need for accountability and

  2. Give and elicit feedback

Once these goals are met, you give the person an opportunity to improve and prove themselves again. There’s a tendency to write off underperforming employees too quickly but this should not be the case. Rather, employers have a responsibility to understand the root cause of underperformance, and help those concerned perform better. That’s why a culture of feedback is so valuable.

Supporting managers

A Quartz survey on manager-employee dynamics revealed that 37% of managers in the US find it difficult to give their employees negative feedback. In fact, 69% admit that in general they find communication very hard.

This means that many leadership positions in corporations across the U.S. are filled with professionals who aren’t comfortable engaging in conversations with their employees. Maryville University’s long-form post on organizational leadership highlights strategic communication and change leadership as key areas that help facilitate positive change, and manage organizational conflict in the workplace. It’s important to support managers by teaching them that strategic communication serves as the starting point towards steering people experiencing performance issues towards self-reflection, so they eventually improve.

It is crucial to understand that when sharing constructive feedback, it’s primarily about giving someone information they need, to do better. When done right, it’s a move that proves you care. It shows your leaders are willing to help everyone on their team, so they can improve their performance. Not to mention, the team itself will benefit once the issue is addressed.

Lastly, when performance-related issues are handled well at a managerial level, it removes some of the burden from HR, who will no longer have to mediate. It’s no wonder then that many HR professionals espouse a culture that relies on feedback and open communication.

All things considered, talking to an underperforming team member is indeed difficult. But it is one managers must do from time to time. To help you deal with this challenging task, here are some pointers to keep in mind:

  • Be forthcoming... but respectful

Some managers and HR professionals tend to preface difficult talks with small talk, often with the hope of breaking the ice. However, this is counterintuitive. Leave the chit chat for some other time. Instead, acknowledge right away why the conversation is taking place, in a constructive and respectful way.

  • Explain... and provide evidence

Here, it is critical that you keep in mind the feedback framework: give context and observations, explain the impact, then outline the steps that need to be taken. In the case of a performance issue, you must explain in detail the areas in which you perceive the person is underperforming, and how this manifests. Follow this with concrete evidence. For instance, you can present records that detail late submissions or a list of nonconformities. Perhaps you could provide a comparison of their previous and present work. Whatever you do, avoid any generalities and rely purely on the facts. By approaching the talk this way, you provide context as to why the talk was necessary in the first place.

  • Seek confirmation

After sharing feedback, seek confirmation by asking if the team member has understood it. Then allow them to provide their point of view. Listen to what they have to say without passing judgment or trivializing any point they make. Instead, try to understand where they are coming from. Remember, poor performance has a root cause; chances are, you will find it out by listening.

  • Explain how to move forward

In this regard, it is imperative to ask input from the underperforming employee. Chron notes in ‘How do I Address Poor Employee Performance?’ that managers need to encourage poor performers to provide their viewpoint regarding the issue.

Work together to identify concrete ways on how to best move forward. Come up with a performance improvement strategy to develop skills or even to change behavioral issues if they are the root cause of the underperformance, with the objective of facilitating improvement

While the above can be difficult, managers must do it for their own and the employees’ benefit. Initiating such delicate conversations promotes a culture that encourages openness, honesty, and positivity — exactly the culture that inspires real-time feedback, not only from managers at a top down level, but upwards from employees as well.


About the author: Eliza Marie is an HR professional who is now doing consultancy work for HR departments of small- to medium-sized businesses. During her free time, she also fancies herself a writer and blogger. She has taken to writing online to share her knowledge of HR-related matters.

Photo by Sarah Pflug from Burst