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Bennett: Stop the Blame Game: 8 Keys to Coaching Underperforming Employees

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Inevitably, leaders will find themselves in a feedback session with poor-performing or struggling employees. These employees typically seem unable to deliver a consistently positive and productive result. Maintaining a positive frame in these often-challenging discussions can feel difficult, and even counterproductive based on the level of correction or improvement needed and the attitude of the employee. Changing the way others behave can be demanding work but is completely worthwhile for everyone involved if it leads to a better result and a more productive employee. Use these guidelines when providing feedback to your disengaged or underperforming employee

1. Create a Felt Sense of Safety

The brain is hypersensitive to situations that feel threatening or negative and our hardwired self-defensive mechanisms can be easily triggered if one feels attacked. Once someone falls into a heavily defensive mental frame of mind, it’s difficult to create constructive outcomes. Here are a few suggestions to create a felt sense of safety in formal feedback settings:

Ask for permission to have a meeting rather than demand one. Individuals feel safer when events happen with them rather than to them. (Example: “Could we get together and discuss some of the details of last week’s performance?”)

Reaffirm how important the individual is to the team, the process, and the company. (Example: “I hope you know how important your contributions are to the team. We all rely on you and don’t want you to underestimate that.”)

Ask open-ended questions to learn more and be genuinely curious. As managers, we often rush to judgment, filling in gaps of information with our own or others’ assumptions. Instead, be genuinely curious, ask questions, and let them share their perspective. (Example: “How do you feel last week’s performance went? What factors do you think led to that outcome?”)

2. Express Gratitude

Incorporate gratitude toward their overall performance and contribution to the team throughout your conversation. Find something that you can acknowledge with them, even if it is something outside the scope of the area of direct concern or specific to their job description. Perhaps they are genuinely helpful or go out of their way to be friendly and provide great customer relations. An employee would rarely purposefully or otherwise try to fail, there was likely some positive effort even if the outcome was less than expected or as agreed. Leading with a positive that you can acknowledge, even if small, is the right frame and tone to begin the discussion.

3. Encourage Self-Reflection

Provide an opportunity for self-reflection by asking your employee to identify their own strengths. You need to understand those areas of employee performance where they feel they have given their best and it is often surprising to discover where an employee feels they have made their most important contributions. Be sure to validate and recognize those areas of accomplishment, especially if they were not included in your gratitude (above), and consider ways to build these strengths into more areas in their role. Additionally, allowing an acknowledgment of what is right often leads to a clearer acknowledgment of what did not go as well. Give them some safe space to be vulnerable and humble with what may not have gone as expected.

4. Get on the Same Page

If there is a specific performance issue being discussed, begin with an agreement on the facts and details of what happened (or didn’t happen). Seek agreement on what the original expectations may have been. There are always two sides to every story, so simply be present with the person, listen to their perspective, and acknowledge that you have heard what they said. Then share your perspective on the same situation and collaborate to find a mutual agreement on what actually happened (or needed to happen) and how we can ensure a better outcome moving forward. 

5. Show Them the Bigger Picture

If an employee doesn’t see the negative impact of a situation, share your perspective of the consequences impacting either the customer experience, other members of the team, or the company/brand reputation. You may also want to include more values-oriented and emotional consequences related to the performance issue. Under-performers will often argue about the facts or details, but they can not argue with your felt experience. For example: “Bob, we felt disappointed when we couldn’t honor our commitment to the customer when you weren’t able to complete the job as agreed. I’m looking to better understand what happened.” Bob can’t respond with “No, you weren’t disappointed.” People will often respond more effectively to the discussion of the values-oriented or emotional impact than they will to the facts and details discussion.

6. Go Beyond Compensation

The actively disengaged almost always blame much of their under-performance on compensation: “I’m not paid to … or if I were paid more, I might be more inclined to ...” Ask them if they can set aside the compensation issues for a moment and focus the conversation on the energy and the attitude they bring to work every day. You could say, “When you think about your performance, money aside for a moment, what do you see as the roadblocks preventing you from being more connected to your work?”

7. Collaborate on Goal Setting

Allow your direct reports to identify future goals that are important to them and align well with their role. Rather than telling employees what you think their goals should be, have them identify key objectives, metrics, and milestones that might be important to them. Make sure you incorporate, as much as you can, their aspirational goals with yours. 

8. Identify Clear Next Steps

Less engaged staff can become more energized if there are clear avenues for improvement. Strategize together about what types of resources and support would help the employee develop further, then check-in again in regularly to see how things are going and what support you can lend to make sure the employee is successful and accountable. 

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