How to have that hard conversation about poor performance that you've been avoiding

Start with an open mind, ask lots of questions, and don't use "always" or "never" to describe a person's work.

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It's easy to put off uncomfortable conversations about performance problems at work, especially in a remote environment. The team member who has been missing deadlines and dropping the ball may be working alone at home, but the entire team is dealing with the problems caused by this person.   

If you've been avoiding one of these tense discussions, consider this advice from leadership development coaches and HR experts about how to prepare for the conversation and how to conduct it.

How to start the conversation

Sometimes starting a difficult conversation is the biggest hurdle. You know it will be uncomfortable and it's easy to put it off until later.

One way to get over this barrier is to start with the basics and assume positive intent. Tracey Fletcher, a leader of the manager development program at Root Inc., a leadership development consulting firm, recommends going into one of these difficult conversations with an open mind and lots of questions. 

"As leaders, we have a natural tendency to want to solve the problem and offer solutions," she said. "Your job is to seek to understand first, which means asking questions, not supplying answers."

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The other key ingredient is empathy. Remember that everyone is dealing with extra stress and responsibilities as well as overall uncertainty. Being understanding instead of critical will help you figure out what the problem is.

"The person you're coaching will feel safe to open up to you and reveal what's at the heart of their challenge," she said. From there, you'll be able to explore what actions might improve the situation.

What not to say when giving constructive criticism

Halelly Azulay, founder of the leadership development company TalentGrow, said it's a mistake to serve feedback in a sandwich: Sstart with a positive comment, deliver the constructive criticism, end with another positive comment. 

Instead, Azulay recommends focusing on both the overall work relationship (the macro view) and the constructive criticism conversation (the micro view).

"The big picture must be tilted in favor of positive content and the feedback conversation must be free of fluff and fillers, sincere but short, direct, and to the point," she said. 

Azulay also has advice on what words to avoid during a constructive criticism session.  
 
"A sure-fire way to make a difficult conversation instantly more difficult is to use a superlative like 'always' or 'never' to describe the other person's behavior," she said. "It is guaranteed to make your conversation partner instantly defensive." 

Now the person's focus has shifted to proving you wrong instead of listening to your side of things. Avoid "always" and "never statements and stay specific and factually correct.


"Instead of saying, 'Pat, you're always late with your reports,' say, 'Pat, you turned in the last three reports late.'" Azulay said. "Keep it objective and constructive." 

How to set clear expectations

Samantha Friedman, SVP of people strategy at Vettery, a job marketplace that uses artificial intelligence, recommends giving feedback in the context of advancing the project or team goals and not attacking the individual. 

Debra Dinnocenzo, founder and president of VirtualWorks!, a consulting and training firm that
specializes in virtual work issues, also recommends resisting the urge to micromanage because that sabotages the basic trust that is essential to successful virtual work. 

"Managers must ensure that performance expectations, deliverables, deadlines, and objectives are clear for their team, set milestones for monitoring or reporting results, and be
available to help and coach when needed," she said.

Finally, remember that this isn't a time for one-size-fits-all solutions. Fletcher recommends taking a personal approach with each team member, which might mean checking in via text daily with one team member and having a face-to-face video chat with another. 

"The key to being an effective leader in a crisis is to know that you've got to put your people first - and this means giving them what they need versus taking the route that's more efficient for you," she said.

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By Veronica Combs

Veronica is an independent journalist and communications strategist. For more than 10 years, she has covered health and healthcare with a focus on innovation and patient engagement. She led AIR Louisville, a three-year digital health project focused ...