In my article A Kinder Way to Look at “Low Performers”, I urge people to avoid using the term “poor or problem performer”. My suggestion is to see an individual’s performance as off-target. As a manager, you have the opportunity to course-correct and re-direct performance. Building the confidence to start and steer conversation means using “hearable and sayable” wording: finding the right words and sidestepping the wrong ones.

The Challenge: Most managers express their frustration with an underperforming employee, with anyone except the employee. According to a Deloitte survey, only 6% of managers are adept at having candid performance discussions. Delivering feedback doesn’t come naturally to most.

Most managers dread and avoid following through on the advice to “give feedback early and often”.  Constructive criticism or feedback feels like an attack on the receiver. Most people don’t react with a “thank you for pointing this out, I’ll try to do better” response. Drawing attention to someone’s shortcomings leads to a response to defending, deflecting, or rationalizing. A difficult, awkward exchange.

It’s not shocking that managers dread and avoid offering feedback. Onetime issues turn into patterns, and performance declines. Guess who’s not at fault? The employee. No one is a mind-reader so most people are oblivious to how they’re perceived.

When off-target performance surfaces, we have two options:

1. Feedback-in-the moment sounds something like this:

  • “I couldn’t help but notice in the meeting that when the team was trying to identify solutions for the x problem that you were placing blame on…..
  • “I couldn’t help but notice that in the meeting you were crossing your arms and rolling your eyes when…).
  • It’s never too late to give in-the-moment feedback, even for an issue (s) spanning months or years.

2. Address the pattern of off-target performance:

When a one-time issue morphs into a pattern spanning months or years, you can and should avoid dredging up past examples. Instead, think in terms of future expectations. What do you want the individual to do?

One of my favorite quotes is, “We can’t go backward but can start from today.”

The underlying obstacle to starting a conversation is the inability to find what is comfortable to say and will have the right effect on the employee.  

Let me share some tips on preparing to redirect patterns of underperformance


First, identify the problem. Then describe it in the opposite, positive terms. This approach works particularly well with difficult to gauge behaviors like interpersonal skills, tone and approach, and interactions with others.


  • Brad lacks finesse when dealing with clients and acts behaves unprofessionally. The manager would ask Brad to “develop a more polished and professional style”. 
  • Jennifer makes frequent mistakes, so you’d want her work to be “more accurate”.
  • When challenged with a problem, James turns to complaining and blaming. Instead, you want James to put his energy into seeking solutions.

Problem and Reframing Examples

Monitors and reports on what everyone else is doing
Look beyond issues that are outside of your control.

Makes rude comments about others
When you have a thought about someone else that isn’t positive, I need for you to hold on to verbalizing those thoughts.

Locks on to solutions before fully understanding the problem
As a first step, get a full understanding of the problem and then explore solutions.

Lacks compassion and understanding
Develop understanding and sensitivity to what others are experiencing

Yells /raises her voice
Dial down the tone and volume of your voice.


Turning around a negative into a statement about what we want is just the start.  It is vital to get specific about what you mean by a “more polished and professional approach”, “more accuracy” or a “problem-solving approach.” For example, “What I mean by “develop a problem-solving approach‟ is that when you first notice an issue that is preventing you from getting your job done I want you to first think through a solution and then approach me if it’s something you need my help with”. 

Next, you’ll work with the employee to determine what type of support they might need. For example, “If you want Jennifer’s work to be more accurate” you’ll need to identify the specifics (what part of her work needs more attention and accuracy? What support will she require? Coaching, training, etc.?


Last, it is helpful to state the change benefit. You’ll first want to name the negative impact (s):

Chronic Complainer Example

  • Negative Impact: The team, normally up to the task of resolving issues, leans toward complaining and blaming. Some team members complain about this individual’s negativity. We waste time and energy.
  • The benefit part of the message would sound something like this. “The reason I want you to focus on solving problems is that people will notice and appreciate your can-do approach. It will make better use of our limited time and bring more positive energy into the team.”

Notice how the message is honest, with a focus on what will happen when the employee makes the shift.


These keys represent some of the core concepts of the Performance Continuum Insight Method, our step-by-step method designed to make anyone comfortable delivering even the most difficult feedback. 

Communicating in terms of the desired performance versus the current undesired performance serves two purposes: 

1. We are more inclined to start the discussion because the wording makes it more comfortable to express the feedback. 

2. The employee understands expectations, instead of fixating on what’s wrong, and their self-esteem isn’t crushed with examples from the past.  

3. Bypassing negative performance descriptions and the ensuing negative reaction allows the employee to react more positively; speeding the shift towards the solution phase of the discussion.

If you’re in the HR or talent space and are looking for a solution to prepare managers to deliver feedback, our Conversations to Accelerate Employee Performance and Potential workshop provides tools, skills, and practice to confidently engage in the right conversations.

Employee-Performace Edit profile

Jamie Resker, Founder and Practice Leader of Employee Performance Solutions, is a recognized thought leader and innovator in the area of performance management. She helps organizations create a culture of performance development conversations by reshaping dialogue between managers and employees with a framework designed to exchange meaningful information. Jamie is the originator of the Performance Continuum Feedback Method®, an approach for differentiating employee performance, identifying gaps and crafting hearable, sayable feedback. Her work is anchored on the principles of neuro-leadership and elements of Appreciative Inquiry which make the tools and training universally applicable, transcending organization type/size, industry, geography and culture. Jamie is a frequent contributor on the topic of employee performance and feedback. She holds a BA in Business from Emmanuel College and is an instructor at the Boston University Corporate Education Group. She is on the faculty for the Northeast Human Resources Association and is an Advisory Board Member for the Institute of Human Resources.