4 Rules for Having Tough Talks with Under Performers

Under performers erode your culture.  In fact, the main difference between a strong culture and a weak one is that strong cultures don’t tolerate chronic under performers.

If you are willing to turn a blind eye to under performance, your best people will leave (or become under performers themselves).

However, addressing under performance at some point means having a conversation with the actual under performer.  How you approach it is the difference between success and failure.

Here are the 5 indispensible rules for having those tough talks with under performers:

  1. Use empathy instead of anger
  2. Let them know you’re there only to help them win
  3. Find out their side of the story
  4. Be really clear, not kind of clear

 Use empathy instead of anger

Anger is an effective tool to use when you’re confronting outrageous behavior.  When you’ve heard an employee being rude to a customer, an angry talk in a back room isn’t out of place.  When the behavior is really bad, a good tongue-lashing may be just what the doctor ordered.

But when you’re dealing with chronic under performance, anger isn’t likely to help.  The roots of the under performance usually go deeper than just a momentary action that needs to change immediately.

Here’s what an angry approach looks like:

  • This kind of thing ends now!
  • I’m sick of what I’ve been seeing!
  • If I see this happen again, we’re going to have a much more serious talk about your long term future here

It can work, but it’s pretty aggressive, and usually causes a lot of defensiveness.  Your message is written off because the under performer thinks, “This person hates me!” and writes off anything you have to say.

An empathetic approach can be much more effective.  Here’s what an approach using empathy looks like:

  • I’m concerned for you. I see your numbers falling month after month and I don’t want this to end badly
  • I’ve been seeing actions that are a roadblock for you here, and are going to hinder your career wherever you go. I care about you and want you to get past it
  • I’ve been thinking about you, and I keep thinking that you need some help. That’s why we’re talking today.  I want to help you be the A-player I know you can be

When the person knows that you’re in their corner, they are much more likely to listen to you and take your advice to heart.

Let them know you’re there only to help them win

Whenever I sit down to have a difficult conversation, I always begin the talk with the same words.  Those words are, “I’m here today for one reason, and one reason only; to help you win.  If you don’t win, I’ve lost too.”

People disbelieve people who they believe don’t like them or aren’t for them.  On the other hand, people believe and trust people who they believe do like them and want the best for them.

So, when you begin your conversation with your under performer, make sure you begin by saying in words that you are there to help them win.

If you aren’t, and you really just want to hammer them because you’re angry, adjust your attitude.  Until you want to help, you’re not going to see them make significant positive changes.

Find out their side of the story

There are hundreds of reasons for under performance.  Here’s a very partial list:

  • Mental health challenges
  • Boredom
  • Reporting to or working with a toxic person
  • Personal issues affecting work
  • Lack of training or coaching
  • Need for a role change
  • Ignorance – they don’t know they’re under performing

So, it’s your job to find out what’s behind the under performance.

When you sit down to have the conversation, don’t assume you know.  Instead, say:

“From my perspective, it seems like you’re not engaged like you used to be.  First, am I right in that assumption?  And second, what are the reasons for your lack of enthusiasm?”

Not assuming bad motives will be a big help in your detective work.  Maybe their spouse is dying!

Maybe they’ve been diagnosed with a terrible illness!  Find out the whole story before passing judgment.

Be really clear, not kind of clear

Any of us who have worn glasses know the difference between really clear and kind of clear.

It’s your job to be really clear in your conversation with your under performer.  If the behavior is job threatening, say so.  If something needs to change, give a timeline and write down your clear expectations.  Set a time for your next meeting.

Make sure don’t say general comments that aren’t measureable.  These include:

  • I need to see a better effort
  • Work on improving your attitude
  • I’d like you to bring more zip to the job

Be really clear on exactly what needs to change, and how, and by when.

That’s your best bet to seeing real change with your under performer.

In summary:

Tolerating under performance will eventually ruin your culture, drive away your best people, and keep you from attracting A-players in the future.

But stopping under performance means having actual conversations with real people – under performers – who need to change their behavior.

Here are the indispensable rules for having tough talks with them:

  1. Use empathy instead of anger
  2. Let them know you’re there only to help them win
  3. Find out their side of the story
  4. Be really clear, not kind of clear

Man in Library

Trevor Throness is a speaker, consultant, and author of “The Power of People Skills.”  He is also CEO and senior instructor at www.professionalleadershipinstitute.com https://www.professionalleadershipinstitute.com/

Find more about “The Power of People Skills” here: https://www.amazon.com/Power-People-Skills-Dramatically-Performance/dp/1632651068

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