How to talk with the underperformers on your team

How to talk with the underperformers on your team


When you work as a manager in a professional setting, the time will inevitably come when one of your employees starts to fall behind the pack and needs a check-in conversation. What you must understand, first and foremost, is that these are difficult conversations for both of you: As such, you don’t want to put someone on the defensive, and the employee doesn’t want to be made to feel as though they are irredeemably bad at their job.

The question, then, is how you strike that just-right balance between being understanding and prompting them to get back to the level of performance that you need. The following will help you do just that:

Be simple and direct

One of the big mistakes you can make when speaking with an employee who is underperforming is to try to make small talk first, sugarcoat the whole conversation or dance around the core issue, according to Harvard Business Review. Because this is such an important matter, it’s vital to be as clear and straightforward as possible, talking frankly (but certainly not unkindly) about where they are falling short, Assertiveness will be the key as you provide constructive and actionable ways they can get back on course.

A conversation about flagging performance isn't pleasant, but it is necessary.A conversation about flagging performance isn’t pleasant, but it is necessary.

Ask them for a solution

You do not, however, want to come across as though you are saying there is only one way to be more effective at work (i.e., “the boss’s way,” which can lead to conflict). You should also ask them what they think is at the heart of the issue, and what they would do in an ideal situation to get themselves back to being a strong contributor.

Remember the importance of being kind

No one enjoys thinking they are letting other people down, especially if they like their co-workers. As such, framing this conversation in terms of “other people have to pick up your slack” is probably not helpful. Bloomberg Businessweek recommended being sympathetic, to an extent, and perhaps ask if there is a non-work reason why their performance has been slipping. If there is, you may be able to address the issue more directly than if you framed it as solely a work problem.

Compare and contrast

Every team has some people who perform at an elite level consistently and some who are more likely to fall behind. It might be a good idea to say, “This is what Employee X does to be successful,” because it creates a model behaviour to be emulated. The Society for Human Resource Management noted that when you do this, it’s more of a source of encouragement. While not all employees prefer to work in the exact same way, it does help to set a positive example.

If you are a manager who has to occasionally have this kind of meeting, you know it’s never easy. However, with ICML’s Courageous Conversations for Leaders course, you can hone the leadership skills necessary to get through them in a way that makes sense for everyone. Get in touch with us today to learn more about what we can do for your managerial skill set.

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