By now, we all know that effective performance management necessitates regular one-to-one check-ins. This is because, at its core, performance management is all about our employees — giving them the support, feedback and communication they require to do their job well while providing the tools they need to succeed.
While reward and recognition are, of course, important when it comes to motivation and performance, not all employee coaching conversations are going to be positive and uplifting. Sometimes, we’ll be faced with difficult work conversations, and though you might dread the very idea of having to reprimand an employee for poor performance, these conversations are necessary to keep employees on track.
The good news is, when handled properly, and when managers are armed with the appropriate training, difficult work conversations can actually be hugely beneficial with regards to an employee’s career and personal development. In fact, it’s been shown that a remarkable 94% of employees actually want to have these conversations — they see ”corrective” feedback as core to their career progression.
If, on the other hand, difficult workplace conversations are handled poorly, the impact on employee morale and voluntary turnover can be devastating. 55% of workers have, at some point, quit their jobs over bad management practices.
Difficult Conversations — Examples
When having difficult conversations with staff, it’s not just about what you say but how you say it. Below, we’ll share our performance management best practices so your managers are armed with all the information and motivation they need when it comes to having difficult conversations with employees.
1. Have Regular Conversations with Your Employees
If you want your employees to be receptive to corrective feedback, they need to have trusting and authentic relationships with their managers built on regular communication and effective coaching conversations. Difficult conversations with employees aren’t going to go down well if they become accustomed to receiving negative feedback (and only negative feedback) on their performance whenever they meet.
If, on the other hand, employee and manager are able to build up a rapport that is conducive to progress and development, employees will be much more likely to welcome constructive feedback. Give employees reward and recognition when they deserve it. Show them that their effort and their hard work is being noticed — don’t just chime in when they put a foot wrong.
Consider introducing regular coaching conversations instead of annual appraisals, staggered throughout the year at monthly or quarterly intervals. This method allows management to build a consistent understanding of their employees’ performance — their highs and their lows. Regular one-to-one sessions mean there is always scope to offer positive feedback on achievements, strengths and progression. The result is that when a difficult conversation does occur, the employee can understand that this feedback is designed to help them to continuously improve, and they will be more likely to engage with the feedback and take it on board.
Such meetings also improve company-wide communication, building honesty and trust. This can give employees the confidence to voice their own opinions, ask questions and provide answers, while giving management an opportunity to listen to what their staff have to say.
All of these aspects help to promote a working environment where difficult conversations can actually be a powerful tool for change and growth. One-to-one meetings become more about collaboration and mutual benefit.
Of course, we can’t expect managers to be able to hold regular performance reviews without the relevant guidance, so here’s a best-practice performance improvement conversation template, which includes recommended discussion prompts that will lead to more meaningful, performance-improving conversations.
2. Don’t Patronise with the Compliment Sandwich
Popular though this feedback tool may be, as HR professionals, we believe that the “feedback sandwich” is actually a staple of bad management techniques.
The concept is simple: In order to not demoralise a worker, you offer them a compliment, provide a criticism and finish on a compliment. The problem is, employees know of this technique. Most will recognise when you aren’t calling them in to give them good feedback and that the purpose of this exercise is to spare them feeling inadequate. There is also evidence to suggest that as you are ending with a compliment, your employees might just forget the negative feedback anyway — making the whole practice a waste of time.
Your employees deserve straightforward talk with honesty. Offering them compliments to disguise the fact they need improvement is a patronising practice that implies your workers are unable to take on constructive criticism. As long as the critique is valid, beneficial and balanced with regular positive feedback, it does not need to be backed up by gold stars.
3. Make Your Constructive Feedback Specific
There is nothing worse than skirting around the truth. When it comes to feedback, employees want (and need) specificity. Be clear and concise. Let them know what issues you are having with their performance and come prepared with examples as an illustration.
Define what has gone wrong and how it can be corrected in order to avoid confusion. Performance improvements can only occur if there is clarity around feedback. Equally, be prepared to give your employees the tools they need to succeed and improve.
4. Don’t Put off Having a Difficult Conversation
Second only to clarity, timeliness is probably the most important consideration when having difficult conversations with employees. Feedback, whether positive or negative, is more effective when delivered in a timely manner.
When employees perform a task well, managers should recognise this effort and accomplishment as immediately as possible to encourage and motivate them. Equally, when an employee isn’t performing to standard, it’s necessary to address the conversation as soon as conceivably possible. The longer managers leave it to deliver constructive feedback, the more bad habits will become entrenched. Furthermore, if you take weeks or months to get back to an employee with negative feedback, the employee might think the critique isn’t all that important — after all, how important could it be if it could wait this long to be addressed?
Learn everything you need to know about having good performance conversations.
5. Don’t Base Arguments on Opinion
In order to give constructive feedback — feedback that truly benefits your employee — it needs to be factual. You must be able to present them with information that says, “this is where you are going wrong, and this is how you can achieve more.”
If your problems are based on opinion or personal judgement, you’ll find you will encounter two issues:
- You are unable to provide the constructive criticism needed to promote change.
- Your employee is able to argue against your criticism because you have no evidence or facts to support your feedback.
Using software to give real-time feedback as events occur, which can be done using a performance management system like Advanced Clear Review, ensures you are building up a body of factual information that can be used to support more meaningful performance discussions — both positive and constructive.
6. Consult Other Managers before Having Difficult Work Conversations
Before you dive headfirst into a difficult workplace conversation, first consider this: are the problems you’ve identified actually problems? Is a discussion in a one-to-one scenario the best way of dealing with the problem or is it an issue affecting multiple staff that could be dealt with in a more effective way?
Other members of management are a powerful resource that should be utilised when considering bringing in an employee for a difficult conversation. Discuss with them the points you would like to address and get their thoughts on not only whether or not they are valid but also how your colleagues suggest they could best be covered.
A second opinion is always helpful in a situation like this. It helps ensure you are justified in your actions and that you are engaging the problem in the most beneficial way.
7. Don’t React to Emotion with Emotion
Difficult conversations with employees can include such subjects as productivity, quality of work and behaviours. These type of conversations, no matter how they are phrased, can prompt an emotional response from an individual. It could be that you experience defensive behaviour, anger, sadness or anxiety.
Critical to the success of your difficult conversation with an employee is controlling your emotional response. If you react to this with an emotional response yourself, you jeopardise clear communication and appropriate messages.
For example, if you engage in aggressive behaviour, it can increase hostility, create new development barriers and lead to an unnecessary amount of pressure on the employee. Conversely, offering an overly sympathetic response may negate some of the significance of the discussion you are carrying out.
To minimise the risk of this, ensure that you are in a calm state of mind when going into the discussion. If you are feeling angry or frustrated about a negative event that has occurred, wait until your emotions have died down before discussing the event with the employee concerned.
8. Take Employee Feedback on Board
Your employee might not be performing to your standards or achieving their SMART objectives as expected, but is this all their fault? If your employee has valuable (not defensive) feedback that could help improve not only their performance but also the performance of the rest of the organisation, be receptive and listen. Feedback should work both ways. Employees might have suggestions regarding shake-ups to your performance management system or workplace processes that could change your company for the better.
Equally, if their feedback implies they aren’t being given the tools and training they require to perform their job efficiently, this is also something that should be addressed as a matter of urgency. This will show your employee that you care about their success and you are invested in their future at your company.
Performance improvement begins with authentic and transparent communication. Take your first steps to accomplishing this at your company by enquiring about our leading performance management software. Our HR software will help you track goals, receive real-time feedback and monitor progress for improved business and employee growth.