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Tips for having a stress-free conversation with your employee on underperformance

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An employee’s under­per­for­mance can have an impact on over­all team morale and the accu­ra­cy of work — result­ing in wast­ed time and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. Accord­ing to research, poor per­for­mance reduces pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and has a neg­a­tive impact on the moti­va­tion of oth­er staff as well as reten­tion. How­ev­er, most man­agers find under­per­for­mance con­ver­sa­tions uncom­fort­able and try to avoid them where pos­si­ble. It’s impor­tant that you get to the root cause of under­per­for­mance by talk­ing to your employ­ee, rather than turn­ing a blind eye. Hav­ing an under­per­for­mance con­ver­sa­tion is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to help an employ­ee get back on track. This is why Clear Review uses the term realign­ment” rather than underperformance.

Should these con­ver­sa­tions still be a pri­or­i­ty while we are work­ing remotely?

All of a sud­den, we feel like life has halt­ed. But in real­i­ty, for most of us, it’s busi­ness as usu­al — albeit from home. Remote work­ing has been the norm for many peo­ple pri­or to lock­down and yet many of those remote work­ers were still hav­ing per­for­mance con­ver­sa­tions. With remote work­ing becom­ing the new norm for us all, there’s no rea­son why these con­ver­sa­tions shouldn’t con­tin­ue. Poor per­for­mance could hint at oth­er under­ly­ing issues for a per­son, per­haps they are strug­gling with their men­tal health and that is some­thing that shouldn’t be ignored. It also doesn’t war­rant the tra­di­tion­al under­per­for­mance con­ver­sa­tion and man­agers should take a well­be­ing approach to sup­port­ing that per­son before explor­ing what’s hap­pen­ing with their work. 

The prob­lems with avoid­ing under­per­for­mance conversations:

Low team morale and distrust 

Prob­lems also arise when under­per­for­mance con­ver­sa­tions are avoid­ed. Usu­al­ly, oth­er team mem­bers are well aware of an under­per­former in their team. In sit­u­a­tions where employ­ees have to be made redun­dant and teams are con­tract­ing, there may be feel­ings of unfair­ness among your team if an under­per­former hangs around, while a more hard­work­ing team mem­ber goes. This can lead to low lev­els of morale and dis­trust with man­agers and leadership. 

Mask­ing” underperformance

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, many man­agers may use the cur­rent cri­sis to make cer­tain under­per­form­ing employ­ees redun­dant — often because they don’t want to have that dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion. This is prob­lem­at­ic for a num­ber of reasons: 

  1. First­ly, your employ­ee won’t know about their under­per­for­mance issue and there­fore won’t know how to improve.
  2. Sec­ond­ly, that employ­ee may have some key skills, that if improved upon, could have been valu­able to your team and organisation.
  3. If under­per­form­ers are dis­missed under the pre­tence of a redun­dan­cy”, inse­cu­ri­ties and anx­i­ety can arise among oth­er employ­ees. They may start to think that a slight hic­cup in their work might mean redun­dan­cy for them too.

The best way to deal with an under­per­form­ing employ­ee is by talk­ing to them! Talk­ing to them will help them realise what they need to improve. Maybe there’s some­thing going on in their per­son­al life which has affect­ed their per­for­mance? Per­haps their skill set and the role they are doing don’t match? They also might not be aware that they are under­per­form­ing and may need help under­stand­ing why that is, and how they can improve. You can­not fix the prob­lem if you don’t have these con­ver­sa­tions in the first place. 

The 5 most important performance conversations

Learn everything you need to know about having good performance conversations.

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How can you have a good under­per­for­mance conversation?

Reduce ambi­gu­i­ty

Reduc­ing ambi­gu­i­ty is essen­tial if you want to reduce anx­i­ety. Man­agers should be clear about what the con­ver­sa­tion will be about. Strik­ing a bal­ance is impor­tant in your con­ver­sa­tion. You have to be straight to the point but be care­ful not to have an accusato­ry tone. What can help reduce ambi­gu­i­ty is writ­ing up what was dis­cussed in the meet­ing and fol­low­ing up after­wards so that your employ­ee has some­thing to refer back to. Research shows that rein­forc­ing your steps or points in writ­ing makes work more like­ly to be completed. 

Prepa­ra­tion is key

Prepa­ra­tion before the meet­ing is key. If you want to avoid com­ing across as con­fronta­tion­al or blamey, it might be worth con­sid­er­ing some exam­ples of where the employ­ee has under­per­formed and per­haps what impact it has had on the wider team or busi­ness. Giv­ing exam­ples allows you to focus on a par­tic­u­lar aspect of their under­per­for­mance and gives evi­dence as to where they are under­per­form­ing. It reduces any chance of bias­es hap­pen­ing in such a sen­si­tive con­ver­sa­tion and also gives your employ­ee the chance to explain why in that par­tic­u­lar instance, their per­for­mance wasn’t great. 

It’s a two-way process

Realign­ment has to be in a relaxed envi­ron­ment. Man­agers have to remem­ber that it is a two-way process where the employ­ee does most of the talk­ing. Man­agers should try to be silent and let the employ­ee talk because it’s their time to talk and explain their feel­ings on their per­for­mance. In our recent Cam­paign for Real Con­ver­sa­tions webi­nar on realign­ment, Rich Jones, Senior Advi­sor at ACAS explained, Get­ting used to silence is impor­tant so the indi­vid­ual can talk. It’s very impor­tant that the focus on the future and not the past. You’re try­ing to help them and not punish.”

Man­agers should let their employ­ee start to answer for them­selves on how they can improve to meet the tar­gets. This helps your employ­ee take own­er­ship of their per­for­mance and also gives it a future focus, rather than focus­ing on what’s gone wrong in the past. 

Moti­vate your employees

Explain the impor­tance of your employee’s role to the team and why it’s crit­i­cal that they per­form to the best of their abil­i­ties. It’s impor­tant to make sure that whilst you are hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion, you don’t have an accusato­ry tone, as you don’t want the con­ver­sa­tion to seem con­fronta­tion­al. A lot of the time under­per­for­mance is as a result of an unen­gaged employ­ee and we know that work engage­ment is the sin­gle best pre­dic­tor for per­for­mance. Try­ing to under­stand what can help your employ­ees feel more engaged in their work can help increase their moti­va­tion and as a result, their per­for­mance. There may be an aspect of their job that they don’t like doing, that you could eas­i­ly change. 

Make sure it hap­pens face to face

Hav­ing under­per­for­mance con­ver­sa­tions becomes more dif­fi­cult when work­ing remote­ly. A lot of the time employ­ees that are under­per­form­ing, know that they are under­per­form­ing. And when they are brought up on it, some­times they might say, yeah you’re right.” But that is much hard­er when you are in a remote work­ing sit­u­a­tion. You can­not have that easy dia­logue if you can­not see someone’s face and body lan­guage. A phone call or an email is not ide­al to dis­cuss under­per­for­mance. You want to be hav­ing face-to-face con­ver­sa­tions, whether it’s on video call or in the office. 

Want to learn more?

Watch our webi­nar where our pan­el of experts open­ly dis­cuss what a good realign­ment (under­per­for­mance) con­ver­sa­tion looks like. 

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