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For me I always thought that in regards to performance a direct and early feedback with concrete examples is what is the correct approach or at least what everyone wants.

Being a new manager I am not so sure that this is the case anymore. Now that I actually have to deliver a message to underperforming individuals I am thinking that by delivering a direct feedback some might be indimidated or threatened even if my intention is good and giving them concrete examples. Although I have discussed this with my manager, I generally like to hear many different approaches on management.

So my question is, how can we deliver the message that someone does not perform to our standards and that the specific examples if repeated would have a big impact on the performance evaluation without making the individual feel threatened?

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  • Does your company have a formal review process, and will your plan fit within the bounds of that process? Jun 25 at 16:50
  • 1
    @mhoran_psprep: yes but my intention is to make someone understand there is an issue and make correction before we end up with a formal process
    – smith
    Jun 25 at 17:00
  • I don't know what your specific tasks are and what is considered an example but for an example to be useful the employee needs to be able to follow it. As an absurd example for management purposes, if you think my sprint performance is lacking you giving my an example by running the 100m in under 12 seconds is probably not going to help me.
    – quarague
    Jun 27 at 7:40

4 Answers 4

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So my question is, how can we deliver the message that someone does not perform to our standards and that the specific examples if repeated would have a big impact on the performance evaluation without making the individual feel threatened?

You cannot. Because that is exactly what it is. A threat. "If you continue to do X, I will do Y, and Y is bad for you."

What you can do is give the person a chance. Be constructive. What you have told us here is that you plan to tell people what they do wrong, specifically and that they should do better, or else. What I miss in there is a plan forward. A positive, constructive plan how to get better.

I don't know who you manage or how they could improve. But the most damaging thing you could do is tell them they are doing badly, not show them any way forward and then threaten their livelihood.

I had a girlfriend once who was totally devastated after their boss told her she would get a bad performance review because she did not copy files fast enough. Yes, that was back in time where "files" meant a stack of papers in a binder. The point is: she did not know how. She would gladly copy faster, I mean it's no fun copying papers, the faster it's over the better. But there was only criticism, there was a threat, but there was no way out. Nobody stepped up to teach her.

So for each person you manage, tell them what you want to improve and tell them who can teach them. Then give them time to learn it.

Show every employee a realistic way to reach your goal. "You did bad" is no feedback that would enable anybody to do better next time. "This was not good, here let me show you how to do better in the future" is a solid way to turn their performance around.


Since you said you already have the personalized suggestions how to improve:

If you want to have this conversation with less of a threat, then do not threaten. "Get better or else I'll do a bad thing" is a threat. Don't lead that way. Lead with the current (probably bad) performance as a given and give them the options for improvement.

If I had to rate your performance now, I'd had to give you a 2 out of 5 stars. But the official performance review is two months away, so I have compiled a list of improvements for you to get a better review then.

Is a lot better than

If you don't do these things here on the list, I will have to drop your performance rating by two stars.

One is a direct threat, the other is an offer to help and an opportunity to get better.

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    My bad for not mentioning, I do tell them concrete examples of what is nott going well and concrete examples of what should be happening to mitigate the situation and salvage it. It is not my intention to threaten at all, I mention what needs to happen so they are not impacted, but even so I am not sure if this is still not perceived as a threat
    – smith
    Jun 25 at 17:39
  • +1 Also you need to pitch like "What can I do to help you improve in this area?", the answer might be training or a change of routine or more guidance when giving out a task. (Of course it might be something you can't help with but you should make it clear that you will help if you can).
    – deep64blue
    Jun 28 at 17:18
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If your employee (direct report?) is doing this occasionally without any other incident, then this can be taken care of in whatever one-on-one meetings you have. If they haven't been delivering to company standards on a consistent basis, there's not going to be any way of sugarcoating the message, which is "you need to improve or you will lose your job with this company." In that case, you would have to place the person on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP).

What I would do is the following:

  • Gather up all the information you can, good and bad. E.g. if your employee is terrible at customer service but stellar in turning around reports, note that. If your employee is always on time but is not organized, note that too.
  • Arrange a meeting. If this is the first time, have it between your employee and yourself. If it's been happening frequently, have HR and perhaps your boss aware that you're undertaking this meeting.
  • Begin by telling the employee your concerns. "We want to be sure you're working to the best of your ability, but there are some items I want to highlight and see if we can work together make improvements on these."
  • Highlight the good things your employee does. "You're fantastic on turning around the quarterly report, you're always on time, and your fellow employees have nothing but good things to say about you."
  • Tell the employee what needs to be improved on, but offer help. "The Sales Department told me that you were rude and snippy to an important client. Can you fill me in on what happened?" If the employee responds positively to it, then you can say, "How can I help to avoid this in the future?" If the employee states the client was a jerk, you could say, "That does not reflect well on us - you have to be careful with your tone or else we'll lose the client."
  • Give a timetable on how things should improve. "OK, we've discussed this situation and what we need to do to improve it. I'm giving you 90 days, but I'd like to come back to this in 30 days for an update on how you're doing. Can we agree to that?"
  • Take notes on everything that was discussed. This way, when you come back in 30 days, you can recall everything. "Sales is pleased that you're dealing with the difficult client better." "You've gotten a lot better at being on time, but last week you were late twice. Can you explain why?"
  • Share your notes with HR and your boss. If you have official PIP documents, add your notes to them as well.
  • If the employee hasn't improved, remind the employee what must be done to get out of the PIP. "The date listed on the PIP 90 days from today's date. If we don't see improvement, regrettably we will have to terminate your employment."

SUMMARY (or tl; dr): You can't sugarcoat the message to an underperforming employee. Have an informal discussion and tell the employee what needs to be done to improve; if that doesn't work, put on a formal PIP and regroup in 30 days; if there are no improvements in 90 days, terminate employee.

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  • What you prescribe, looks too me quite formal. Until I reached the paragraph about PIP, I thought you were sugesting a PIP. My intention is to give a first corrective guidance early on, to give a chance for them to take action, before setting up a meeting along with HR. Is that not good idea/possible?
    – smith
    Jun 26 at 11:10
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So my question is, how can we deliver the message that someone does not perform to our standards and that the specific examples if repeated would have a big impact on the performance evaluation without making the individual feel threatened?

Your starting point is that you have an underperformer on the team. There are a few options available to try influencing the situation.

One option, as you already have suggested, is some kind of feedback about what's expected vs. what they're actually delivering, along with connecting that to future performance evaluation. At larger companies (where this kind of thing happens regularly), they call it a "pip" - a performance improvement plan. It loosely looks like:

  • you're doing A,
  • instead you should be doing B,
  • here is C: a specific set of improvements/goals
  • here is D: a deadline for when you should accomplish C
  • after we reach time D, if you have not done C, then your employment with this company is over

Going through this process means the manager spends time, ongoing, up through "time D": setting it up, monitoring progress, giving feedback to employee along the way, discussing with the rest of the team (they'll find out, even if you don't want them to, and they'll have questions). It's only anecdotal, but I have never heard of this resulting in the pip'ed employee somehow becoming great, as though they were just waiting for someone to point out their flaws.

Anyway, as an alternative to pursuing a pip-like approach, I'd encourage you to look a bit deeper into why they ended up in this situation in the first place. Here are a few questions to explore:

  1. Sometimes the person is good at the role, but not "good enough" for what the team needs. This might happen if there's a high-performing, high-output team. If that's the case, maybe you could help them transition to a less-demanding team.

  2. Sometimes there are personality conflicts within the team, which can create a barrier of some kind for this person. Their own output, skills, etc. might be great (ie, not the source of any problems), but there could be someone on the team who is somehow blocking or shutting this person down. If this is the case, the steps would be to find out which people they work well with, who do they enjoy collaborating with, and get them into a situation where they're working with those people, staying away from the "conflict" person.

  3. Sometimes the person is simply in the wrong field. For example, there are plenty of people who can do software engineering, but they don't actually enjoy it. This isn't a problem (it's fine if they're ok with it), but sometimes it isn't fine, and they struggle to deliver since they don't really enjoy doing the work. If this is the case, you could help them explore options for a different role. For example, if they're in an IC contributor role, help them think through if they'd like to try a different role within the team (lots of asterisks here.. of course, this should be a need your team has, and your team can accomodate someone taking that position at a junior-level).

There are, of course, many other possible reasons why they have ended up in the current situation.

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You don't have to deliver the threat as well as the information.

You have a good instinct that a threat is rarely effective as the first place to go. But you should communicate the information that your report's performance is not up to scratch.

So deliver the information about what the person is doing or not doing that you don't want, and what you want them to do (or not do) instead. Don't talk about consequences yet. Assume that they simply don't know what the expected behaviour is, and that they can correct it. If they are unable to correct it after a while (or if they ask for help) then offer them assistance in improving their performance. If they are unwilling or incapable of making any improvements, that's when you should start to talk about consequences.

If you start to talk about consequences too soon then the person may assume that they are destined to be fired, and instead of attempting to improve their performance they will spend their energies looking for another job, making your threats into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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