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Facing an unpleasant conversation about performance with an employee? You can turn it into a positive experience! Follow our examples of do’s and don’ts to ensure you handle the situation properly and achieve the best results.

Part of regular performance management is engaging with employees, and this includes recognising both positive and negative performance.

Challenging and difficult conversations are an unfortunate part of management. However, when handled properly, they can be hugely beneficial for furthering an employee’s career and personal development. 94% of employees want to have these conversations; they see ‘corrective’ feedback as core to their career progression.

However, if handled poorly, difficult conversations can have implications not only for morale but also for staff retention. 55% of workers have, at some point, quit their job over bad management practices.

When having difficult conversations, it’s not just about what you say, but how you say it.

Difficult Conversations With Employees: Examples Of What You Should and Shouldn’t Do

Do: Have Regular Conversations With Your Employees

Meeting your employees only to have difficult conversations is not going to build a rapport that is conducive to progress and development. Pulling them into your office to discuss negative performance or only ever meeting them for annual reviews will not improve the performance of your team and does not lend itself to the acceptance of ‘corrective’ feedback.

If they rarely hear from you, and then when they do the words are mostly negative, you’ll find employees struggle to hear and engage with the criticism provided, no matter how constructive. Giving regular feedback that is balanced helps employees to develop their resilience so that they can accept constructive feedback when it is necessary.

So consider introducing regular performance reviews instead of annual appraisals, staggered throughout the year at monthly or quarterly intervals. This method allows management to build a consistent understanding of their employees’ performance — their highs and their lows. Regular one-to-one sessions mean there is always scope to offer positive feedback on achievements, strengths and progression.  The result is that when a difficult conversation does occur, the employee can understand that this feedback is designed to help them to continuously improve, and they will be more likely to engage with the feedback and take it on board.

Such meetings also encourage a better flow of conversation between employee and management, building honesty and trust. This can give employees the confidence to voice their own opinions, ask questions and provide answers, while giving management an opportunity to listen to what their staff have to say.

All of these aspects help promote a working environment where difficult conversations can actually be a powerful tool for change and growth. One-to-one meetings become more about collaboration and mutual benefit.

Don’t: Patronise With the Compliment Sandwich

The ‘feedback sandwich’ is a staple of bad management techniques.

The concept is simple: In order to not demoralise a worker, you offer them a compliment, provide a criticism and finish on a compliment. Employees know of this technique. Most will recognise when you aren’t calling them in to give them good feedback, and that the purpose of this exercise is to spare them feeling inadequate.

Your employees deserve straightforward talk with honesty. Offering them compliments to disguise the fact they need improvement is a patronising practice that implies your workers are unable to take on constructive criticism. As long as the critique is valid and beneficial and is balanced with regular positive feedback, it does not need to be backed up by gold stars.

Do: Be Incredibly Specific About Your Feedback

There is nothing worse than skirting around the truth. An employee needs to know exactly what feedback they are getting, what the difficult conversation is about and why they are having it. Be direct and specific with your performance review discussions.

Define what has gone wrong and how it can be corrected in order to avoid confusion. Performance improvements can only occur if there is clarity around feedback.

Don’t: Base Arguments on Opinion

In order to give constructive feedback, feedback that truly benefits your employee, it needs to be factual. You must be able to present them with information that says: this is where you are going wrong, and this is how you can achieve more.

If your problems are based on opinion or personal judgement, you’ll find you will encounter two issues with this:

  1. You are unable to provide the constructive criticism needed to promote change.
  2. Your employee is able to argue against your criticism because it is not based on fact.

Using software to give real-time feedback as events occur, which can be done using a performance management system like Clear Review, ensures you are building up a body of factual information that can be used to support more meaningful performance discussions, both positive and constructive.

Do: Consult Other Management Before Engaging the Employee

Are the problems you’ve identified actually problems? Is a discussion in a one-to-one scenario the best way of dealing with the problem, or is it an issue affecting multiple staff that could be dealt with in a more effective way?

Other members of management are a powerful resource that should be utilised when considering bringing in an employee for a difficult conversation. Discuss with them the points you would like to address and get their thoughts on not only whether or not they are valid, but also how your colleagues suggest they could best be covered.

A second opinion is always helpful in a situation like this. It not only helps you ensure you are justified in your actions but that you are also engaging the problem in the most beneficial way.

Don’t: React to Emotion With Emotion

Difficult conversation with employees can include subjects like such productivity, quality of work and behaviours. These type of conversations, no matter how they are phrased, can prompt an emotional response from an individual. It could be defensive behaviour, anger, sadness, or anxiety.

Critical to the success of your difficult conversation with an employee is controlling your emotional response. If you react to this with an emotional response yourself, you jeopardise clear communication and appropriate messages.

For example, if you engage in aggressive behaviour, it can increase hostility, create new development barriers and lead to an unnecessary amount of pressure on the employee. Conversely, offering an overly sympathetic response may negate some of the significance of the discussion you are carrying out.

To minimise the risk of this, ensure that you are in a calm state of mind when going into the discussion. If you are feeling angry or frustrated about a negative event that has occurred, wait until your emotions have died down before discussing the event with the employee concerned.

Manage your employee’s performance, both the good and the bad, with Clear Review’s specialist performance management software. Track goals, get real-time feedback and monitor progress for improved business and employee growth.