How to handle a difficult performance conversation

Difficult conversations about poor performance are right up there on the list of tasks managers dread the most.  It’s easy to sweep the problem under the carpet and hope it will go away.  But if you don’t tell people where they are going wrong, they will never get any better.

It’s important not just to tackle the issue – but also to go about it in the right way.  If you’re not careful you could well end up with a completely demoralised employee whose standards slip even further.  They may go off sick – or in the worst case scenario could take umbrage and decide to raise a grievance.

It’s undoubtedly an uncomfortable situation, but there are ways of approaching it positively and achieving a good outcome.  So whether the problem is to do with making mistakes, missing deadlines or not hitting targets, what do you need to do to handle the conversation successfully and get people performing at their peak?

Seize the Day

Don’t delay.  If there’s a problem don’t let it fester or wait for the next formal appraisal to come around.  Nip it in the bud straight away or a minor issue may escalate into a major problem.  Be aware that if you let poor performance continue unchallenged, it can have ramifications within the team.  Resentment will build up, for example, if people see their colleagues getting away with poor time-keeping or inappropriate behaviour.  They may also take it as ‘permission’ to start taking their foot off the gas or may adopt a ‘don’t care’ attitude themselves.


Don’t launch into the conversation unprepared.  Think about the key points you want to make and what actions and solutions you are going to propose to improve the situation.

Be ready with specific examples of where the person is going wrong, what ‘good’ looks like and what impact their behaviour or poor performance is having on clients or colleagues.  Don’t be so over-rehearsed, however, that you forget to listen. Be prepared to approach the conversation is an open, receptive frame of mind.

Set the right tone

Make sure you find somewhere private where you can deliver difficult feedback without being overheard. Bawling someone out in an open plan office and in plain hearing of their colleagues is unfair and unlikely to achieve a good result.  Think about your body language.  Maintain eye contact and consider how you are sitting (no crossed arms or angry glares).   Start the conversation in a pleasant and non-confrontational way but don’t beat about the bush.  Get straight to the point and tell people where they are going wrong and what they need to do to get better.  Keep it calm.  Don’t raise your voice or get emotional even if the other person becomes confrontational.  It won’t help anyone if the conversation escalates into an argument.  The key is to be firm but fair.

Get to the heart of the issue

Make sure you get to the bottom of what is really going on for the other person.  People generally want to do a good job and there are often ‘hidden’ issues underlying poor performance.  An employee may be struggling to balance child or elder care responsibilities with work, for example, or they may be battling with an illness but are worried about telling anyone in case it affects their job.  Equally, someone may have been put in a role that is beyond their capabilities and needs support or training to bring them up to speed – or perhaps they are unhappy at work because they are being bullied or undermined by others in the team.  Make sure you leave space in the conversation for the other person to speak and put their side of the story.  You may leave the discussion with a different perspective and a better understanding of what is going wrong.

Set clear goals for improvement

Set specific goals for improvement so that everyone is crystal clear about what is expected. Involve people in generating ideas about the steps they need to take to improve.  If people feel they are part of the process they are much more likely to commit to change and to follow any agreed actions through.  Make it clear that you are there to support them in their efforts to overcome whatever difficulties they are facing so they can raise their performance – and of course make sure you deliver on any training or support that is promised.  It’s important to have some kind of official record of whatever has been agreed. This doesn’t have to mean filling in complicated forms.   The latest performance management software (such as the module included with Cezanne OnDemand) makes it easy for you to document the outcomes of any conversations – and the system will also nudge you when actions are due.

Set a timescale for review

Set a clear timescale for how and when the individual’s performance will next be reviewed.  You might want to set up some informal check-ins leading up to a more formal review for example.  Make sure people know that you want them to succeed  – but that there will be consequences if they fail to change.  They need to understand the implications and what the next steps will be if they don’t pull their socks up.

Good luck with your next difficult performance conversation – and remember that it’s not just poor performers that need feedback to help them improve.  Even those who are working well need to understand what they could be doing to get better.  Research from the US suggests that while ‘novices’ prefer feedback that focuses on their strengths, more experienced people are actually hungry for the kind of feedback that focuses on their mistakes and gives them a steer on how to improve their performance.

What are your tips for dealing with difficult performance conversations.  Let us know what’s worked for you.

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