When talking with staff about performance improvements,YOU must set the agenda.
Because if you just let things naturally unfold, you’ll likely find a real mismatch between the conversation YOU wanted to have with them, and the one THEY ended up having with you.
Don’t Keep the Agenda Secret
Distributing an agenda at a meeting is a GOOD thing, as it helps keep attendees focused and aware of the meeting’s purpose. Distributing an agenda IN ADVANCE of a meeting is an even better thing, as it also allow attendees to think about the topic(s) and better prepare, instead of just showing up cold.
This is especially true for performance improvement discussions. Yes, performance improvement discussions can still serve their purpose if you allow them to be actual discussions. So, which lead-in would likely create the most constructive interaction?
- “See me…NOW.”
- “Oh, as long as we’re talking, here’s one more thing…”
- “At our meeting, tomorrow, I’d like you to be ready to discuss your year-to-date sales numbers and how you intend to get them back on track.”
Square Your Corners, But No Sharp Edges
I’m a fan of squared-off corners for meetings like these. Here are four that make performance improvement discussions significantly more productive:
- Knowing what point(s) you want to communicate, how you want to communicate them, and with what tone and tenor
- Noticing any digressions or re-directions that occur and refocusing the conversation back on point(s)
- Knowing what you need to hear from the other person(s) to insure their full and proper understanding of the point(s) you’re making (see Leadership Move #7: Managing the Message)
- Knowing what follow-up you want, by when
When you PREPARE for performance improvement discussions in this way, you dramatically increase the probability that your point(s) will actually be RECEIVED, as intended.
Contrast that to when you just try to wing it.
‘Less Than’ Reactions
When you don’t prepare, you’re likely to have a much less productive interaction. Why? Because when faced with criticism, most people’s go-to response is to try to refute it, discount it, or prove you wrong. So instead of a crisp, constructive, discussion, it can all-too-easily turn into a mess, stuffed with their circular, blurry, and ‘fuzzy’ logic.
Typically, such ‘less than’ reactions have two distinct ‘textures’: Soft/Furry; and Sharp/Scratchy:
- The Soft Reaction – This is one where the employee shows surprise, shock, and disbelief, and insists that all is well and there must be some sort of misunderstanding somewhere. Whether done intentionally or not, this approach can cause you to start doubting the accuracy of your concerns and feel bad for misjudging the person and his/her behavior
- The Sharp Reaction– This is more confrontational. Its major thrust is that you’re flat-out wrong, the employee has possibly been set-up, and while, yes, there ARE performance problems happening, but it’s due to someone else, not the person you’re talking with. Usually done intentionally, this tactic is also designed to cause you to second-guess yourself, but instead of doing it in a soft and furry way, it’s through sheer intimidation.
Regardless, each approach, in its own way, can easily get you off-topic, off-balance, and off-schedule if you let it. So don’t let it..
Confirmation of a ‘Less Than’ Reaction
Now it may not happen exactly this way for you. Many employees are quite open and receptive to having the ‘constructive dialogue’ with you. But for those who aren’t, it can get pretty messy, pretty quickly. Here’s a tell – when your ‘squared corners’ start to have ‘sharp edges’, you’ve lost control of the meeting. Then, it’s only a matter of time until you hear,
“Oh, sorry, boss, but I’ve got a meeting I’ve got to get to.”
Preparing Your Message
To be clear, it’s your right – and role – as the boss to have performance improvement conversations with your direct reports. Anything less is both unfair AND irresponsible.
So how do you stay on-point? Here are six ideas:
- Write down the specific performance points you want to raise and keep them, literally, in front of you throughout the conversation so you can tell if you digress.
- Have several data points available for each point you raise – facts, statistics, logic, what you’ve personally witnessed, etc. Just don’t rely on hearsay as it’s too easy to refute and leaves you looking foolish.
- Know that your examples may be challenged (and may not all be valid) which is why ideas 1 and 2 are so important. (Accept these push-backs and calmly provide your facts, statistics, logic, etc. to explain your points and implications. Then ask them for for theirs – remember, you DID give them time to prepare, so there’s really no excuse for them being unprepared.) Above all, keep your emotions in check so you don’t fall into the “because I’m the boss and I say so” trap.
- Know, specifically, what you need to see and hear in this conversation to confirm that the issues you’re raising are being properly heard and acknowledged to your satisfaction.
- Know, specifically, what you need to see and hear, subsequently to confirm that the issues you’ve raised have been attended to properly, sufficiently, and to your satisfaction.
- Know how you want to handle both favorable and unfavorable outcomes to your discussion so that you can respond from a place of calm and respect instead of fear, uncertainty, doubt, and officiousness.
Insuring employees know where their performance is lagging is one of the most respectful things a boss can do. Surely if it was you, you’d want to know so you could do something about it, wouldn’t you? It may not stop them from self-destructing, but it quite possibly can.