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Showing Respect When Dealing with Performance Issues

Showing Respect When Dealing with Performance Issues

By: Denny Strigl and Frank Swiatek, authors of Managers, Can You Hear Me Now: Hard-Hitting Lessons on How to Get Real Results

When you have an environment focused on results, it's critical to address employee performance issues quickly. When an employee is missing targets, the manager must act to correct the course and get the employee back on track.

Though avoidance by managers to address these issues is common, it is not the best policy. Managers often avoid discussion of employee performance issues because they befriend employees, are concerned about making an employee upset, or prefer good-news conversations rather than bad-news ones.

The challenge for the manager, therefore, is to develop the skills and motivation necessary to facilitate effective performance discussions leading to better employee productivity.

The key skill in resolving these matters is the actual initiation of the employee performance discussion. Most managers know what they want to talk about in the meeting, but they rarely spend time on how they are going to open the conversation, nor do they think about the specific words they are going to use. As a result, they often improvise the opening, and poor results tend to follow. 

Why? Because the opening words often sound disrespectful. The conversation results in the creation of two separate agendas — the manager's and the employee's. The manager's agenda is to refocus the employee on productive behavior and finish the conversation quickly. The employee's is to recover his or her sense of self-esteem and self-worth.

Employees often become defensive and start to rationalize and make excuses for their lack of performance. They will also try to recover their self-esteem by focusing on all the good things they have accomplished, while not being terribly interested in discussing their performance weaknesses. Nor will they be interested in ending the conversation as quickly as the manager. This is exactly how discussions of performance issues go awry, with very little good coming out of them.

To keep performance reviews focused and productive, I recommend taking a few minutes to plan your opening remarks carefully, using these principles:

  • Know your state of mind going into the performance discussion. Your state of mind has to be right for the performance discussion to be productive. If you are extremely upset or angry and you want to rip into somebody, your attitude is disrespectful and is likely not to produce the long-term results you want from the meeting. Yes, you will probably feel better after you have vented with this approach, but that's not the point, is it? Remember to focus on your desired outcome — improved employee performance.

You want the employee to be successful. If you find yourself in a bad state of mind, it is better to take a short cooling-off period and delay the discussion temporarily until you can focus on the performance issues. Only when your state of mind is fully focused on helping the employee succeed is it time to initiate the discussion.

  • Respect the employee, but attack the performance issue. Let your first set of words in the meeting focus on the performance issue, not the person. Managers violate this principle every day during performance discussions by using comments like, "Jan, you are going to have to raise the bar on your performance!" or "Bill, you have got to get your act together!" In such instances, the employee may feel attacked personally and will tend to respond defensively by overexcusing and overjustifying his or her actions.

Notice the focus is on Jan or Bill — the person — in each of these comments, and also notice the lack of direct and specific language. Ask yourself what the person is doing or not doing and let that be the focus of your opening remarks. Try initiating a performance discussion in a respectful way, such as, "Robert, your sales are off by 32 percent for the first half of the month," or "Ellen, your store checklist has not been completed seven times in the last month." These statements are direct and specific and focus on the issue and not the person.

  • Take an "ask" approach and not a "tell" approach. Once you make your opening statement, take an "ask-listen" approach by simply asking a question that will help uncover what is behind the performance issue. For example, "Tell me, what's happening?" or "What are your ideas for turning this around?" This approach will help you set the right climate for a problem-solving discussion to occur.

If you have the right intentions, if you focus on the performance issue by being specific, and if you ask rather than tell, you have the ingredients for a productive meeting that can resolve the performance issue. And most important, you have treated your employee with respect.

Copyright © 2011 Denny Strigl and Frank Swiatek, authors of Managers, Can You Hear Me Now: Hard-Hitting Lessons on How to Get Real Results

Author Bios:
Denny F. Strigl
, former president and CEO of Verizon Wireless, spent four decades in the telecommunications industry. He serves on the board of directors of the Eastman Kodak Company, PNC Financial Services and PNC Bank, and Anadigics, Inc. Frank Swiatek is a performance consultant and speaker who has had more than 3,400 speaking engagements and seminars and has worked for more than 25 Fortune 500 companies, including Verizon Wireless.