Twenty years ago I went to my manager for guidance on how to approach a poor performing staff member. I left the meeting with 10 dot points of wisdom scrawled on the back of an old manila envelope. That same scruffy old envelope has been my reference over the ensuing years whenever I’ve had a poor performance issue to manage. Those 10 points have become the backbone of my preparation for poor performance management meetings with staff.
With the meeting carefully set up and well thought out you’ll be in the best frame of mind to manage the poor performer effectively and not let your lack of confidence allow the meeting to be side tracked or go off the rails. You’ll reduce stress on yourself, be better placed to support the staff member and achieve a positive resolution.
The 10 steps to stress free performance management meetings are:
1. Prepare yourself
- Read your organisation’s policy and procedures regarding the management of poor performers. Refresh yourself each and every time. You’ll grow stronger and stronger at understanding and implementing it.
- Know what the performance problem is and have a clear explanation ready for the staff member. You also need to have examples or evidence to support when and why this is/has been a problem.
- Reflect on how the employee may react. Have a plan for the best case, the worst case and the most likely case reaction and your response to it.
- Know the outcome you need from the meeting. Make notes of how performance improvement and monitoring can be achieved. Consider the variety of outcomes there may be and include alternate approaches in your notes. That way you’ll have covered all bases.
- Jot down key words you will actually use for important messages during the discussion. Make sure you keep the level and tone of your communication right for the employee and the situation.
More complex issues require more detailed planning. Seek support from higher management and obtain specialist HR advice if you have any concerns about your experience in managing the situation and outcomes. You may also need to plan for the impact on other staff indirectly affected by your management of the poor performe
2. Manage the Timing
- Deal with a performance issue as soon as possible (ideally within 24 hours of identifying it and always within a week). Many issues will only surface after they have been affecting work for some time. Further delay in dealing with it will only lead to even more entrenched behaviour and difficulty justifying why it was allowed to continue.
- Provide options for meeting times; three is good. Working together to find a mutually agreeable time recognises the employee rights and builds a positive framework to the meeting.
- Book a private meeting location where there will be NO interruptions. Book the room for longer than you expect to allow for protracted discussions. Set the room with chairs at right angles rather than opposites to relax the environment.
3. Take care with the Invite
No employee is delighted to receive a meeting request to discuss their poor performance. A considerate and supportive approach will set the environment for a constructive meeting. A poor approach to the request will inflame any tensions. Consider:
- How you will make the request; email, face to face, or phone. Do not avoid two way communications with the employee at this stage. Show leadership as opposed to avoidance.
- The exact words you will use to make the request. Ensure the employee is not misled as to the meeting’s intent, but do not discuss the performance issue outside the meeting.
- When to make the request for a meeting. There is potential for angst and speculation between your request and the meeting itself, so minimise the time period, but also give the employee time to mentally and physically prepare as necessary.
4. Stay Dignified
In the meeting you must leave any pent up emotions at the door. You need to remain calm, clear and professional. Be direct on what the problem is, what the affect is and what needs to change. Focus on the specific behaviour and the evidence of it occurring. Stick to basic facts.
5. Stop Talking
Say your piece and give the employee a chance to think and respond in their own words. Don’t interrupt and allow periods of silence. Remember, you have prepared for this meeting, they probably have not. It’s a natural tendency to fill silence, but you risk dominating the meeting and preventing communication.
If things get emotional, suggest a short break but avoid rescheduling due to an emotional outburst.
6. Seek Reflection
Ask probing questions to encourage the employee to reflect upon their behaviour and its impact on the organisation. Probing questions don’t place blame on the individual and encourage taking another parties perspective. Examples are: What would happen if everyone ignored tasks that needed doing? How much time does it take to redo poor work? Who has to do the extra work?
Having asked a question be comfortable with the ensuing silence while your employee contemplates their response or seeks clarification. Probe gently and avoid interrogation. The intent is to have the employee take responsibility for their behaviour and future changes.
7. Solve Collaboratively
You should have ideas in mind of how your employee can improve and the monitoring of this, but the employee needs to take ownership in this part of the process. So be flexible as to how improvement might occur.
Change the meeting dynamics at this point so the employee feels an equal or better still, the driver of the solution. Working through thoughts and actions together on a large piece of paper or a whiteboard removes any power imbalance and provides a free exchange of information. Lead this to the outcome of a clearly articulated set of actions and timelines to remedy the poor performance.
8. Affirm Your Faith
An employee needs to leave a poor performance meeting with their dignity intact and motivated to make the changes required. So affirm your faith in the employee. Say out loud that you’re pleased to have had this meeting and dealt with the issue before it got out of hand. Thank them for their participation in coming to a solution. Tell them you believe they can definitely make the improvements required and that they should then be excellent in their role. Explain how you think having this meeting has been positive and how you have both learnt from it.
9. Make a Record
Document the meeting and agreed actions. Poor performers may be repeat poor performers, and it is important you can provide the evidence to justify any future actions you may need to take. Check your HR policy on recordkeeping requirements and as a minimum make a note in your personal diary. Taking notes during the meeting may be difficult but do make sure you capture the details and the key points raised by both parties. Write up the agreed action plan and send a copy to the employee.
10. Support Swiftly Afterwards
Your employee might have been feeling a bit down after your discussion, and so may you, so follow up informally soon after your meeting. Seek evidence of positive improvement beforehand and take the opportunity to recognise that. Check the agreed action plan is on track and schedule time in your calendar for additional communications with your employee.
It was only 6 years ago that I finally rewrote the 10 dot points into a word document. At the same time I sent that old envelope back to my manager with a reminder note of the occasion in which we developed the points and with my sincere thanks for the help they have been in my management career. He too remembered the meeting and had the envelope framed for his new office!