In a recent poll on my LinkedIn page, I asked leaders what situations trigger the most anxiety and create the biggest obstacles. There was a unanimous response: addressing poor performance.

Here, I will discuss how to overcome this challenge and suggest several practices leaders can implement to address poor performance while empowering employees to do their best work.

Reframe What Addressing Poor Performance Looks Like
Of course people dread having conversations that might make the other person feel bad. Any empathetic leader wouldn’t look forward to that. But approaching these conversations from a different angle – with a different mindset – can alleviate the anxiety surrounding them.

If you’ve been following my work for a while, you know that challenging fear-based thoughts is my jam. So let’s apply this to addressing poor performance:

Fear-based thoughts come from our past experiences, mostly throughout our early, developmental years. Think of a time when you felt criticized. Maybe a parent or coach berated you for one reason or another, and to this day you can feel the hot sting of rejection and belittlement anytime you think of it. You don’t have to consciously think of a formative experience to be affected by it. These experiences are stored away in your body’s nervous system, even if your logical brain chooses to ignore them. So when you think about discussing an employee’s less-than-stellar performance, your subconscious may be saying, “You are going to make this person feel incredibly small and scar them for life.”

Meanwhile, the facts are:

  • You are not the person who made you feel small when you were young.
  • You are in control of how you approach the conversation.
  • Employees need feedback to develop. In fact, many wish they had more of it.

Knowing how to change our fear-based thoughts doesn’t mean we can suddenly do it successfully. But the more we practice reminding ourselves of the facts and choosing more helpful thoughts, the easier it will become.

Improve Performance Through Motivation and Empowerment
One effective tool for navigating anxiety is preparation. So, as you practice reframing your fear-based thoughts, consider these actionable steps for addressing performance issues with an employee:

  • Find the root cause. Is it a “skill or will” issue? In other words, is the employee engaged but not achieving results, or are they disengaged and unmotivated? Remember: there is no wrong answer when it comes to getting to the root of a problem. Lead with empathy – no accusations, no accusatorial tone – to encourage openness. Be curious and listen to understand rather than to respond.
  • Learn what motivates them. Perhaps their working and/or learning conditions are limiting productivity and focus. Perhaps it’s something more abstract. Are they getting to use their strengths? How does their current role or the organization fit into their overall career goals? What about their personal passions? Simply asking these questions may unlock exciting, unexpected possibilities for the employee, team, and even the organization as a whole.
  • Set (and reset) clear, transparent expectations. The most fundamental element of employee engagement is their knowing what is expected of them, according to a recent Gallup report. Don’t assume employees know what is expected of them after a hasty rundown of responsibilities in an onboarding call. Have ongoing, two-way conversations about expectations to stay on the same page, and provide plenty of opportunities for them to ask clarifying questions.
  • Offer opportunities for collaboration. Match struggling employees with compatible top performers. Not only will the employee learn from their colleague, but the two will likely form a valuable, collaborative relationship that benefits the whole team. Of course, make sure the top performer you choose has the bandwidth to participate; we don’t want to set them up for their own performance issues.
  • Address them first as individuals. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to improving employee performance. Rather, effectively addressing performance issues requires understanding the individual’s perspective – their point of view and experience within the context of work as well as on a broader, personal level.
  • Give them autonomy. Micromanaging simply doesn’t work and messages distrust, thus hindering motivation and strong performance. When working with an employee to help them improve, it’s important to prioritize how they think they should adjust, not how you think they should change. It helps to ask questions rather than give instructions:
    • How do you do your best work?
    • What are your strengths? And what would allow you to use them more effectively?
    • What are some things you think you can improve on?
    • What goals do you want to set for yourself for the next month?
  • Humanize Yourself. When meeting one-on-one with a report, there is an inherent power dynamic. And it can feel particularly tense when addressing poor performance, as it becomes easier for the report to feel “in trouble.” Consider dissolving the hierarchical tension by humanizing yourself. Share your own learning journey as a reminder that mistakes and setbacks are critical components of growth.

If addressing poor performance with an employee causes you anxiety as a leader, you are not alone. With practice, you can reframe the underlying fear-based thoughts and instead channel your energy toward empowering your employees.

Every thought is a possibility.

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