You have employees, right? How many are the epitome of perfection? Probably zero.
Everyone can stand improvement in some way. Including both you and me.
But, having conversations with employees can prove to be difficult. You want to discuss the opportunities for improvement without the defensive force fields going up with your staff member. Most leaders just don’t have the verbal skills to dance around the obvious.
Until now. Read on, my friend. Here are some tips you can use to converse with an employee about how they can improve.
First, Get Prepared
Before you have that conversation, you need to gather the facts. Not opinions. Facts.
If you can, avoid hearsay. Just because Nancy in shipping said that they saw Bill doing something he shouldn’t have been doing doesn’t make it true. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Do your due diligence and investigate.
A significant part of management is helping staff members increase their performance, learn new skills, and elevate their motivation to succeed. One critical part of your leadership toolbox for having any sort of meaningful conversation is going to be data. Try to have actual performance data at your fingertips, whatever the conversation is about.
For example, look up their time clock punches if you have an employee who appears to be constantly late. How many days were they late? How late?
Or, if they are in production, check out their average performance by reviewing their KPIs (Key Production Metrics) for the last few months. Are they trending up, down, or flat?
Organize everything before you discuss anything with your employee. Jot down the facts, and write them out into a few bullet points.
At this point, we are still organizing our thoughts before meeting with the employee. Too often, new leaders or managers jump in and start waving their arms around and launching accusations.
Instead, you want a controlled conversation that points to the successful outcomes you want your employee to reach. Define success. Be specific.
We want the employee to turn toward the future. Set some goals. Benchmark them with dates on a calendar. “By this date” works great.
Determine what you want to do and say and write all of that down. Including how you are going to support them.
Create the Meeting
This isn’t about your power as the boss. This is about them elevating their performance or correcting their attitudes and behaviors.
Book the meeting at a specific time if you have a neutral space, such as a conference room. You are on their side. Remember, you want them to resolve the challenge, not ramp up their defensive posture.
When you choose the time, be cognizant of scheduling it, so it doesn’t conflict with either your schedule or theirs. Conversations sometimes go on longer than you think, so you don’t want to stifle the positive results of a meeting with distractions.
Immediately Before the Meeting
You want a positive outcome. Just like anything important, your preparation has a lot to for that.
Reread your notes, review the data, and mentally prepare what you want to say.
If you have a little anxiety about the meeting, breathe deep and try to relieve some of the stress. Mentally picture a positive outcome for the meeting.
Also, consider how you look and feel from your employee’s point of view. Relaxed, calm, and confident sets a different tone for the meeting than being out of control, angry, and visually frustrated.
Take the emotions down a few notches for a better outcome if you feel you are a little over the edge.
Get there first. When they walk in, greet them with a smile and warm optimism.
Open the Meeting By Discussing Outcomes
Most underperforming employees expect a tongue-lashing or a harsh conversation regarding their negative actions when called into a meeting. Their body is tense as they are prepared for the worst. You can sometimes see this on their face and body language.
As you should be more interested in a positive performance-changing outcome, don’t fall into the trap of getting into a verbal battle.
Begin the meeting by saying something like, “Let’s make this a useful conversation, and begin with the end in mind. What do you think success looks like here?”
You want them to talk and to have the psychological safety to open up about why you are meeting. The employee will often get defensive if you launch into finger-pointing or discussing their failures. When that force field is up, most people stop listening.
Have them describe their version of success to begin the conversation. Does that match what you have in mind?
If yes, great! You can carry on a conversation about how to make that happen.
If not, great! You can offer your point of view and suggest a course of action that will start immediately.
It’s Always About the Future
The past, as they say, is history. Nothing you can do to change that.
However, the future is what you and your employee make of it. During your conversation, use these talking points to help steer the rest of the chat:
- What’s broken or not working as it should? What should success look like? Here’s where your data and research fit in.
- What is needed to improve?
- What do they need to stop doing? Be specific.
- From their point of view, what is holding them back? Get them to talk about this.
- How are issues upstream or downstream from them affecting their performance? What would it take to alleviate those?
Practice Active Listening
This is an important meeting. You wouldn’t be having the conversation if everything was perfect. This is why you need to be fully present in the conversation.
Listen more than you talk. Ask questions, and then shut up. It’s ok if there is a moment of silence. You want your employee to feel safe, even if the meeting is regarding tremendously negative points.
Take notes. Write down the key points they are serving up, as there could be some insights into the situation that you were not aware. Ask good follow-up questions.
“Help me understand” is a great way to inquire about something that isn’t going well.
For example, “Help me understand why you are constantly late.” or “Help me understand why we didn’t follow our quality control steps, and we misprinted 400 shirts?”
Keep them talking with “Tell me more.”
Plant a Flag on Top of the Mountain
To wind up the meeting, you need to set some concrete goals. I call this “Planting the flag on top of the mountain.” Whatever was discussed, the goals you set will feel like trying to summit the peak. It is going to take consistent effort to reach that goal.
This means that you need to support them in this effort. With the employee, work out the clarity of expectations. What needs to happen to determine success?
There are a few key points that you need to consider here:
- Do they have the training to accomplish the goal? Are you sure? Ensure success by giving them guidance.
- If they are using equipment, is everything in working order? We don’t want to hear the “there was something wrong with the machine” excuse.
- What is upstream from them with their work? If they rely on others to provide something before they can begin, ensure that the workflow is even and constant.
- How do other employees play a role in their success? Are they working next to someone that isn’t helping the situation?
- Are they willing to change? This probably is the most important. Everything could be perfect, but if they don’t want to improve, there isn’t much you can do.
That flag on the mountain needs to be a concrete goal. “By this date, this will happen.” Your role in this is to be a part guide, part cheerleader, and part sherpa.
They are doing the work. No doubt about it. But, you need to play an important supportive role in the turnaround.
Only Three Things Can Happen
As my friend Mark Coudray is fond of always saying, “There are only three things that can happen, and two of them are bad.”
- Things can get better.
- Things can get worse.
- Things can stay the same.
Which one of these outcomes will show up?
“If you are going through hell, keep going.” – Winston Churchill
“What you do today can improve all of your tomorrows.” Ralph Marston
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” Mark Twain
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