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How to painlessly review a staffer with poor performance

Perhaps the most difficult part of being a manager is the job of pointing out what a staffer is doing wrong.

No manager enjoys the confrontation. Yet unconfronted, poor performance worsens.

Here’s an outline of how to take on that most unpleasant job. It’s explained by JoAn Majors, a Caldwell, TX, speaker on people skills. Majors is also author of the book, “EncourageMentors: Sixteen Attitude Steps for Building Your Business, Family and Future.”

The meet-me-at-5 threat

The right approach begins at the beginning – in the way the manager sets up the meeting with the staffer. And about the worst thing to say is “I’d like to see you in my office at the end of the day.”

That doesn’t give anybody “warm and fuzzy feelings,” Majors says. “There’s no positive energy exchanged.” It tells the staffer “you’re in for it now,” and it’s enough to make anybody nervous. It’s also enough to put that staffer on the defensive before the meeting ever starts.

Set the meeting with a softer tone. Make it more an invitation than a demand. For example, I was going over your file and saw a few interesting things I’d like to discuss with you. Could we meet at the end of the day? Is there any time after 4:00 p.m. that’s good for you?

Or be even more direct with Do you have time at the end of the day to talk about an issue that concerns me?

That takes the threat out of it, because it gives the staffer has a role in setting the meeting. That also establishes a two-way interaction, so the staffer comes in willing to participate in a discussion.

The surprise attack

The meeting begins.

Keep in mind, Majors points out, that “it’s not a finger-pointing thing. It’s a hand-holding thing.” Don’t make it an attack by dropping a bomb of criticism.

Start out instead with a compliment. Doing that gives the staffer “something to hope for” in the discussion.

Make a comment along the lines of I appreciate that I can always count on you to do X or I really liked the way you handled such-and-such.

Then move on to the coaching, but a good tactic, Majors says, is to ask permission to do so. That keeps the discussion from sounding like a reprimand.

Just say May I point out some other things to you here? Or take the approach of I would like to have your permission to coach you on how to be friendly but professional. May I do so?

The answer will always be yes. And now that the staffer has been a decision-maker in whether to talk about the issue, both sides are ready to engage in a good conversation.

With that participation, Majors says, the staffer doesn’t see the manager as attacking a wrong but as helping to make something better.

Not sort of and not maybe

Now tell the truth about exactly what needs to be improved.

And truth telling requires leaving out the limiters, or the terms that diminish the significance of the issue.

Those are the namby-pamby words such as kind of, sort of, just a little, and maybe. Managers often use them to soften an otherwise harsh comment, but the problem is that they soften things too much. They tell the staffer the poor performance really isn’t so bad after all so don’t get upset about it.

Limiters are also statements such as This isn’t something you need to worry about right away or This may be something you need to work on or even You need to keep an eye on this.

There’s a significant problem or the meeting wouldn’t be taking place. The staffer has a right to know it’s significant and deserves an opportunity to correct it.

Two other rules about words also come into play, Majors says.

One is don’t speak in the first person plural, as in We have a problem with your tardiness. Use the word we, and the manager takes ownership in the problem. But it’s not the manager’s issue – it’s the staffer who’s late to work every day.

The other is don’t end the conversation by giving the staffer an excuse for the unacceptable behavior. Don’t say, for example, I know you have children to get to school in the morning or I know you’ve had a lot of work lately. All that does is let the staffer off the hook.

Leave off the limiters and follow those two rules on wording, and what needs to be said will get said.

Majors gives this example of how to proceed: Staffer A, there is a problem with your continued tardiness. I am concerned about it. And I believe you should be concerned about it too.

Then be silent. Give the staffer 30 seconds to respond, and if the silence is uncomfortable, pretend to take notes.

If there’s no response after the 30 seconds is up, prompt one. Ask the staffer How do you feel about this?

My mom did her makeup at work

Everybody is innocent until proven guilty. Don’t assume the poor behavior is purposeful or even that the staffer is aware of it. That means don’t make accusatory statements such as You’ve been tardy every day this month, and the reason seems to be a simple lack of respect.

Give the staffer the benefit of the doubt. There could be a real and possibly severe problem nobody knows about such as a car that has broken down or a dying spouse at home.

Or the staffer may be honestly confused about the work hours and not realize there is a problem.

It’s also possible the staffer is just clueless about what’s acceptable.

In one office, Majors says, the manager told a staffer “When I say I need you to be here at 9:00 a.m., that means you need to be ready to go to work then.” And the staffer in all honesty came back with “Wow! I remember my mom used to wait till she got to work to put on her makeup.”

After stating the problem, watch the staffer’s reaction. If there’s a look of surprise, ask Has anyone ever told you this before? And if the answer is no, respond with I’m glad I asked you, because I know someone with your integrity wouldn’t do this unless you didn’t realize it was a problem.

That says the manager believes in the staffer. At the same time, it raises the bar on the performance. The staffer feels compelled to live up to the standard the manager has just set.

Turning dreams into goals

End by getting the staffer to set a plan of action.

If the staffer has been participating with interest in the conversation, ask Based on our conversation today, how are we going to move forward?

But if the staffer hasn’t said much, make that Based on our conversation today, how are you going to move forward? That gets the staffer engaged in deciding on the solution, which is essential to accepting it.

Either way, once there’s an acceptable solution, put it in writing, date it, sign it, have the staffer sign it, and put the statement in the employee’s file.

And here’s a surprise: It’s the staffer who should write out the solution, not the manager. Just say Now I want you to write that up and date and sign it, and I’ll sign it too and put it in the file. When that’s done, Majors explains, the staffer “has spoken it, professed it, written it up, signed it,” and is now committed to it.

Write down dreams, Majors says, “and they turn into goals.”

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