If you have an employee whose attitude or behavior or performance is not up to the team’s standard, you want to address the issue with them in a way that leaves them in a better place, not a worse one, than they were before the talk.  You may need to give them some hard truth about the urgency of their need to improve, but your goal is still for them to succeed, so they have to believe they can.  And they have to know that you believe they can.  So prepare for this conversation with a “happy ending” in mind.  As you envision the happy ending, here’s what your vision looks like:

  • They have as much (or more) belief in themselves as they had before.  Their confidence was probably less than 100% because they knew they were underperforming.  The most important thing you can do to build their confidence is to restore their belief in themselves.
  • They know that you still believe in them.  Even though their performance is not up to the standard, there is no doubt in your mind that they have the ability to succeed.  The exception to this is when you know for certain that they really don’t have the ability, and it’s the wrong line of work for them.  In that case the conversation sounds more like this: “How do you feel about being in this line of work?  Do you think it’s right for you?”  If they say yes, and they will do what it takes to succeed, and you decide to give them another chance, your response becomes, “Then here’s what you need to do, because I need for you to meet the same standard that everyone else is held to.”
  • They know exactly what they need to do in order to stay on the team, and they know how to do it.
  • They know that once they do it, everything will be fine.  But if they don’t do it, then this is not the right place for them, and they owe it to themselves to find the right place. 

Throughout your conversation, make sure they believe that you sincerely want them to succeed.  As obvious as that may sound, the reality is that in these situations employees often do not believe that their boss really wants them to succeed. 

Then make sure you lead the conversation in the spirit that the employee will succeed.  It’s collaborating with them about their need to improve.  It’s not talking down to them, and it’s not threatening them, at least not until every other approach has failed.  Collaboration sounds more like this:

  • “Let’s put our heads together and figure out a way to get you where you’re trying to go.”

You’re listening as well as talking, and you’re getting feedback along the way that leads the conversation toward the right conclusion.  You draw out responses from them the same way you would with a friend you’re helping to reach a conclusion:

  • “How do you feel about what I’m saying?”
  • “How does this sound to you?”

The goal of a conversation about the need to improve is to:

  • Gain commitment that they will improve.
  • Agree on a plan, a timetable, and an expected outcome.

Remember that your team expects you to engage in these conversations and not avoid them. 

When it’s time to bring closure to your conversation about improving, here’s a final sequence you can follow if you haven’t already gotten there:

  • “What I wish for you is…”  (Be clear and precise about the outcome you need to see.)
  • “I believe you can do it, but I need for you to do it.  Can you commit to that?”
  • “Do you understand how important this is?”
  • Then tell them what will happen if they don’t improve.

This is also a time to remind them, if necessary:

  • “I’m responsible for maintaining the standards and protecting the well-being of the team.”

If they agree to do it and then don’t, that’s when the integrity issue kicks in.  Here are three sound bites you can use to instill a higher level of urgency for honoring their commitments:

  • “You made a commitment to me, and you didn’t honor it.  Where do we go from here?”
  • “I need to know that you take your commitments seriously.”
  • “I need to know that when you make a commitment I can trust you to honor it.”

You can be compassionate and still be firm.  You can be supportive and also be serious.  But at this point you can’t leave any wiggle room.

The employee’s motivation is that you believe in him or her, you want them to succeed, and you’ve told them how to succeed.  The next step after that, if necessary, is the consequences of failure.