Difficult Conversations About Declining Performance

Shawnee Love   •   November 8, 2019

I think the reason why talking about declining performance is so hard is because we often leave it too long.

The person has done better in the past, and so we cut them slack. And by the time it occurs to you that the poor performance is a new reality rather than a few bad days, a lot of time has gone by and it is difficult to tell someone they have been not meeting your expectations for months and months.

It’s also hard because there is usually a “good” reason for the decline which could open up a whole can of worms that employers don’t want to touch.  By “good” reason, I mean things like:

  • The employee has worked for years without recognition or additional compensation and so they are withholding their effort.  To get them back on track requires trust building, change in your management style, and your organization to pony up cash; all of which is in your court.
  • The employee’s personal life is a country music song (e.g., the spouse left, dog died, basement flooded and the truck broke down), and they are having trouble coping with all that let alone doing their job.  You don’t want to kick a person when they are down.
  • The person is sick or pregnant and just not feeling well, and it shows in productivity or errors.  But you are empathetic to their plight and worry if you try to hold the person accountable, they will drop a doctor’s note on you and be gone entirely and you can’t afford to lose them.
  • The person is overworked and/or burnt out due to their hard work all these years and they just can’t do it anymore. You will feel like a royal jerk now if you start performance managing them when they gave it their all for so long.

When you encounter performance declines in these types of situations, the right approach is to engage the person in a conversation.

Seek to understand first (thanks to Stephen Covey for that wisdom). I find it effective to start with what their good performance used to be like. Follow that by explaining you have noticed changes, i.e., those previous standards are not being met anymore.

Ask if the employee recognizes the change as well.  If the employee does, proceed to ask what’s behind the change.  If the employee doesn’t recognize a change in performance, then you might have to provide examples- gently because remember you are seeking to learn the employee’s perspective and it is not yet time to make yourself understood.

Once you do completely understand, it is a good time to collaborate on the right solution.

We hope you are enjoying our series on difficult conversations. If you have anything to add or have a difficult conversation you’d like us to discuss, please comment.