Blog Post - 1-10-13

Handling Tough Performance Conversations In Difficult Times


As managers we’ve all been faced with the need to have tough conversations, some of which we probably ended up avoiding altogether. When it comes to challenging issues like employee poor performance, workplace politics and office gossip, or an employee who is not promotable, managers must learn to show courage. One of the toughest demands a manager can face is the need to address performance issues with an employee who has been overburdened by staff shortages and believes she deserves a higher rating because of the volume of work she’s been assigned. If you give this employee what she wants, you’ll do her a disservice by withholding the honest feedback she needs in order to advance her career.

A foundational principle of Management Courage is to be the most honest you can be, without being brutal; but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to get feedback in the same way. You must learn not only to be courageous in delivering the feedback, but also to deliver it in a way that the employee can hear it and make use of it.
Let’s look at an example. Mark and Sarah both work for you and both are receiving a lower performance rating than last year. Your branch has had a tough year due to a hiring freeze, and both Mark and Sarah have been working a lot of hours but not producing the results you need. Mark is the kind of employee who apologizes profusely when he makes a mistake, and who is far harder on himself than most others are ever inclined to be. Sarah, on the other hand, is an “in your face” employee who has no filter on her own communication and expects you to be direct with her. How do your conversations with each of them differ?

With Mark, you’ll take a moderate approach and let him find his own way. “Mark, you know how valuable your work has been to the team and the agency, and I recognize that staff cuts have made this a tough time for you. I think we would both agree that your performance this year has not been as strong as it could be. What are your thoughts? Can you tell me what areas you might need to focus on improving?”
With Sarah, however, a mild approach like that may allow her to think that the issue isn’t serious. She will fall short again next year because you haven’t communicated to her in a way that is meaningful to her and likely to change her behavior. With her you’ll want to be more candid and say something like, “Sarah, your performance really slipped this year and I need you to step up your efforts right away. We can’t count on staff levels going anywhere but down this year, but that doesn’t mean we can use it as an excuse. Tell me what you’re going to do to get back on track.”

Treating employees equitably and fairly does not mean treating them identically—it means treating them in a way that will be most effective for them. And that requires managers to have the courage to step out of their comfort zones sometimes. Now more than ever, Management Courage is crucial to the effectiveness of our organizations.

Interested in learning more about Management Courage? Ask us about CI International’s Management Courage seminar, delivered by Margaret Morford, author of the book Management Courage—Having the Heart of a Lion.