Communicating Dissatisfaction without Demotivating
Steve Adubato, Ph.D.
Here’s the deal. You have an employee who has been with your organization for several years. He has been pretty competent, but recently his performance isn’t up to par. More specifically, Jim has been late in submitting three out of his last four projects. Further, he only got them done because you kept pressing him. You don’t want to get rid of him because it would be too costly to bring a new employee in and start from scratch, but something has to be done.
You want to communicate to Jim that his performance is sub-par, but you don’t want to de-motivate him. Worse, you don’t want him quitting, because he does have value. You need to have a “coaching conversation” that is direct but not contentious. You need to confront the problem without being personally confrontational. Most importantly, you want to improve Jim’s effectiveness. Much of this effort will be about what and how you communicate.
--Ensure Jim acknowledges the issue. Get Jim to agree that there is some performance problem that exists. Try saying; “Jim, are you aware that you have submitted three important projects in the last month well beyond the agreed upon deadline?” The idea is to not get Jim’s back up against the wall. Provide “neutral feedback.” Instead of saying, “Jim, you’ve submitted three projects in the last month that were late. What’s wrong with you?”, ASK if he is aware so he has the opportunity to respond. If he says, “yes,” follow up with; “Why is that, Jim? What exactly is standing in the way of you meeting these deadlines?” You want to get Jim talking.
--Emphasize the impact Jim’s performance is having on the organization. “Jim, what impact do you think your missing these deadlines is having on Bob in marketing?” If he says, “I don’t really know, I haven’t thought about it,” make it clear that there are consequences and that he is an important part of the team. “Well, Bob really needed your report to put his marketing plan together for the next quarter. Because he didn’t have it, his plan had lots of holes in it. He really needs you, Jim, to get the job done right.” Try to get Jim to say, “Yeah, I see what you’re saying, it is a problem.”
--Ask Jim to identify how he will address the issue. “Jim, I appreciate you acknowledging the problem, but we need to agree on how we are going to address it. What are the three most important projects on your plate?” Let him respond and then ask, “When exactly will you have them completed?”
--Agree on next steps. Once Jim verbalizes the commitment, establish exactly what the follow-up is going to be. Don’t wait for Jim to miss the next deadline. Agree on how he will communicate with you between now and the deadline; “Jim, I’d like you to send me an e-mail by XYZ date and tell me where you are on each project.” Finally, ask Jim, “What else can I do to help you get the job done?”
--Be responsive and show your appreciation. When Jim sends you the update, acknowledge his efforts. If Jim’s update communicates a problem, address it immediately. The goal is to continue to provide immediate direct, candid, yet respectful feedback so you can continue to coach Jim to be an even more valuable member of the team.