How to start that performance conversation you've been dreading

Do you have someone you have to provide difficult feedback to? I am not talking about regular coaching here, I am talking about those scenarios that require perhaps immediate action (even if you may not have taken it!) – a person has clearly been under-performing, or they have behaved in a way that is very much against the organisation’s values, or involves something like personal hygiene or other vulnerable matter. No one enjoys having those conversations; they’re confronting for everyone involved.

However, providing this kind of feedback doesn’t have to be awful – it can be an incredibly constructive process for those involved, even if it doesn’t end up with the outcome you’d like. I learnt this at a pivotal moment early in my career when I was managing my first call centre team. I was supervising a woman who just couldn’t get it together; she was constantly late, she couldn’t meet her call targets, she was acting up. In the end I had to fire her (stick with me, I promise there is useful information here!), but the process in between was informative for both of us – as she walked out the door she thanked me profusely for the support and learning she had engaged in while we went through the process. I can’t take any great credit for this – I hadn’t done anything especially noteworthy or with any real intentionality, I was early twenties and flying by the seat of my pants. But - not really knowing what else to do I had listened, followed through with the supports we’d agreed on and provided feedback as we went along. Turns out I go lucky with my naivety.

So what creates a result like that (or, ideally one where the person gets back on track) vs relationship breakdown (which is what HR practitioners so often see)? Psychological safety. Social scientist Joseph Grenny argues that when people are feeling psychologically safe, they crave truth. If they feel unsafe, their automatic response is defence.

How do you create that sense of safety? Well, a couple of things to note first up:

a) You can’t actually make anyone feel safe. Goodness knows what million and one triggers every one of us have that you’ll never see coming. You aren’t/can’t be responsible for others’ emotions; but also,

b) Safety is a by-product of trust. Trust is a thing you build. If you’ve historically been a hard arse, you’re going to go into that feedback room at a disadvantage in terms of being heard. That doesn’t mean the situation is irretrievable though, just starting from a place of good intent will make a significant difference.

So, what next.

1. Plan what you are going to say before you get in the room. Write it down, get it clear in your head. Understand why you are there. Practice if you need to. Seriously, this might sound over the top but it’s a strategy many of the managers I work with find incredibly useful even if they only spend 5 minutes thinking it through.

2. Explain why you are meeting as early in the meeting as possible. Don’t beat around the bush – you’re just making both of you more nervous. Explain it clearly and with as much respect for the person as you can muster. An example:

a. I want to ensure we’re supporting you to do your best work. Can I give you some feedback about X? (stating your intention and asking for permission is hugely powerful)

b. I have observed/heard/been advised Y (keep this factual and emotion-free, be clear about your evidence source).

c. This is problematic for Z reasons (make sure this is real – if it’s not actually having or likely to have an impact then the person will feel targeted).

d. Can you tell me what happened for you?/your thoughts?/why this might be the case?

Then listen and engage in a genuine dialogue. Put yourself in their shoes – focusing on shortcomings kicks our fight or flight response in into gear regardless of how nice you are about it. If you’re feeling vulnerable instigating the conversation, they are feeling it infinitely more. If the person is upset and can’t engage at that moment, reconvene later in the day or even the following day if needed (obviously there are limits to this, if their behaviour is completely inappropriate then that warrants a different response, but that is likely to be context-specific).

We have talked about the nuts and bolts of performance and conduct conversations before, so I won’t go into that here, but if you can approach the start of the conversation with humanity and curiosity it will have a huge impact on how the rest of the scenario plays out. With a little planning and care, it needn’t be an awful experience for either of you.