There are lots of reasons why managers avoid having difficult performance conversations with their employees. You might also be familiar with, or even guilty of, acting on these ones:
- He's only got another two years before retirement.
- She can't change.
- That's the way he's always been.
- What if I make things worse?
- It's a personality issue and it's not my job to deal with that type of thing.
- We can't afford to lose her.
However, the most contradictory reason to not have difficult performance conversations is:
"We're a gentle, nice type of place to work and we avoid conflict."
- "We have people who are underperforming, but we'd rather not have those conversations."
- "It's just easier to let the underperformance continue as is; I'll just focus on my A and B level players."
- "What would we say and how would the person on the receiving end react? We'd rather not go there."
Why is claiming to be "nice" instead of dealing with poor performance contradictory?
If the organization was really the nice place it claimed to be, wouldn't it make more sense to provide early-on and actionable feedback that would help the underperforming employee get back on track?
Instead, most managers admit to waiting for a performance problem to get so bad that it reaches a level where the first step they take is disciplinary action or getting the ball rolling on moving the person out of the organization.
In my consultancy, one of the questions we ask at every event or workshop is: When do your employees first get information on an area of underperformance? Is it:
- Early on when the issue has just emerged.
- When a persistent pattern has developed.
- When the manager is so frustrated he or she is ready to fire the employee.
Not surprisingly managers and human resources professionals report that it's when a persistent pattern has developed (meaning it's time for disciplinary action such as a warning of a performance improvement plan), or when the manager is ready to fire the employee.
From the employee's perspective this approach is particularly unfair when the issue is in their blind spot; they have no idea their performance is problematic. Not because the leader who could and should be having a conversation is unaware of the issue. No, the employee is left unawares because the people manager doesn't know how to have this kind of coaching conversation and so avoids doing it.
Now I ask you: Is this really nice?
When should managers have difficult performance conversations with their employees?
The best time to have a difficult performance conversation is as soon as you become aware of an area of poor performance.
From the employee's vantage point withholding key performance information is anything but nice. How many times have people been written off or worked around due to a performance inhibitor? "You know how Jennifer can be, let's not have her on the team this time around." Only for Jennifer to realize she has been left out of various activities and opportunities which can lead to her asking why she wasn't asked to participate.
When employees are left out of important meetings, bypassed for promotional opportunities or interesting work, left behind while team members go to lunch together, or whispered about, they pick up on the undertones. And they wonder why it's happening. This leads to disengagement and can exacerbate the existing performance problem.
Help your employees out before you help them out of the organization
Good and kind organizations promote these conversations early on before the issue has reached the point of no return.
Being a kind organization means giving people the opportunity to improve before writing them off, even when it might mean initiating an uncomfortable conversation.
The goal should always be to "help the employee out" before "helping them out of the organization."