Performance Management Blog

What to Say When Addressing a Performance Issue

Posted by Jamie Resker on Jun 12, 2010 4:53:00 PM

The traditional method of providing constructive criticism/feedback would sound something like this:

"John, we need to talk about how things are going. You made some careless errors on the last several reports you handed in. You factored in the production labor costs incorrectly. I had to get other staff to rerun the numbers and as a result Tammy had to drop her own work to fix the mistakes you made. Now I feel I need to go through your month end reports with a fine tooth comb before I pass them onto the CFO, etc....".


"Ann, we need to have a discussion to clarify your role and responsibilities. I've noticed the following issues: You are missing deadlines, not keeping people in the loop when deadlines are not going to be met and not demonstrating a sense of urgency to get the press releases out on time. From my perspective it appears that you don't have good time management skills based on not accomplishing key tasks within specified timeframes. On top of all this your attitude seems really lax when you do miss deadlines. What is going on with you?..."

accurate performance feedback
What the manager has said in the examples above seems accurate. 
Most managers have been taught to create a bullet-proof case revolving around a list of the employee's shortcomings. After all, you have to prove to the employee that they are underperforming. Is it any wonder that most feedback recipients get defensive and feedback providers find difficultly in achieving anything remotely resembling a productive outcome, never mind gaining agreement on what needs to change?

Can you think back to a time when a manager talked to you about a performance issue and did so without any finesse at all? From the employee's perspective when their manager does initiate a performance discussion it can come across as finger pointing, fault finding and disciplinary. Poorly crafted and delivered messages can trigger feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness for the employee. This is particularly true if this is the first time the employee is hearing the information. The traditional approach to giving feedback often comes across in a harsh, "this is what is wrong with you" tone.

defensive employeeExpect a Defensive Reaction
Once employees are confronted with this type of information the natural response is to blame others, fixate on the details, make excuses, try to explain why the feedback is incorrect, etc. All of this adds up to an uncomfortable and often confrontational exchange between the manager and employee. Once a manager has been through this process once or twice it becomes easier to just avoid addressing employee performance issues altogether. Let's just say there is no real mystery for why managers tend to steer clear of giving feedback and why employees don't like being on the receiving end! The fact of the matter is that there is a better way to introduce feedback to employees.

The key is to use words to describe what you want to have happen. 
I'm not sure where this quote originates so I cannot provide the proper credit, but I thought it was impactful: "A good leader can describe what successful performance looks like".  If you are familiar with Marshall Goldsmith's work you're likely familiar with the term "feedforward", which means describing what you want to see for future.  See this short video, How to Begin a Performance Conversation (and how not to), for specific language to introduce feedback in a helpful coaching type style. 

Topics: feedback, addressing bad behaviors, Address Performance Issues, managing workplace behavior issues, manager avoiding performance conversations, constructive criticism, improving performance, managing difficult discussions, managing bad employee behaviors, address bad behavior, difficult employees, disruptive behavior, employee performance issue