Last time I talked about setting up a behavior agreement so that your employees know what to expect.  But it’s still tough for many of us to actually tackle performance issues with employees.

As I said last time, there’s three reasons why it’s hard for you to give critical feedback to an employee:

  • You’re not clear on exactly what expectations haven’t been met.
  • You haven’t created an agreement with the employee where he or she expects this kind of discussion.
  • You don’t know what change you’re really asking for.

There’s generally two kinds of employee issues:  Those which have to do with specific events, and others which generally grow over time.

The event-driven problems are deceptively simple, because you’d think that the feedback would be something like, “You screwed that up.  Don’t do that again.”

It’s rarely that simple, though, because your intervention probably means that there’s a bigger impact than just screwing up.  Maybe others on the team were inconvenienced.  Perhaps customers noticed and your image in the market was damaged.

Employees need to understand this larger impact, because it will help them make better-informed decisions in the future.  After all, you want them to learn and mature, not just avoid the one mistake.

The longer-term issues take much more thought, but the principle is the same:  You need to identify the problem, why it has impact, and what you want the employee to change.

Suppose that the employee’s negative attitude has been affecting others in your organization.  It’s not really useful to say, “you have a bad attitude,” because he or she might not see what they can do about it, or why it matters.  All they know is that somehow YOU find it annoying.

So it’s more useful to talk about specific actions and impacts:  “When you don’t support others’ work, they tend to avoid working with you.”  “When you are surly with customers, they don’t enjoy the experience and they’re not going to come back.”  “Because you don’t often answer emails in a couple of hours, it’s holding up other people in the group.”

The more you can give specific examples, the better, but clearly distinguish in your mind the difference between three specific occurrences, and an underlying worrisome trend.

As for having this difficult discussion, there’s a few principles to follow:

  • Confidential – embarrassing employees in front of their peers introduces a whole set of dynamics that will drive things out of control.
  • Timely – nobody wants to feel like you’re storing up ammunition against them.
  • Focused – people can address a specific concern you have, not a long list.
  • Unhurried – it takes time to have an emotional conversation, and you don’t want to leave it half done.
  • In person – the worst way to convey difficult information is through email, because you aren’t seeing how the person reacts.
  • Interactive – while being firm in your convictions, you also need to listen and empathize.

Your desired outcome is for the employee to feel that your feedback was fair, appropriate, and honest.  With that, you have a chance that they’ll work toward fixing the problems and learning from the experience.