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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

16 actions to avoid when meeting with an underperforming team member

A conversation with an underperforming employee is a delicate situation that must be handled with care.

16 actions to avoid when meeting with an underperforming team member
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As a leader, it’s important to be able to have tough but necessary conversations with employees. When an employee isn’t performing to their full potential, leaders must guide them the best they can and work with them to find the root of the problem.

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It’s certainly a challenge to have these conversations, which can be uncomfortable and awkward for both parties. And if they’re not executed properly, your conversation could hurt your relationship with the employee, causing further damage to their morale and performance. To help you have constructive conversations with employees who need some coaching, 16 members of Fast Company Executive Board have shared one thing a leader should never say or do when meeting with an underperforming employee.

1. BEING INDIRECT

One thing that I have found employees appreciate is when leaders directly approach the issue. First-time supervisors often try to go around the problem, but in doing so they only make the problem harder to address while giving the impacted employee the false sense that they’re performing well. Be direct about the problem, but also provide the required guidance to overcome the situation. – Ricardo Villadiego, Lumu Technologies

2. OFFERING MEANINGLESS COMPLIMENTS

When having a tough conversation with an underperforming employee, we’re tempted to offer up compliments to lessen the blow. However, being candid and giving specific and actionable feedback best serves the end goal: helping the employee perform better. – Lukas Quanstrom, Ontic

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3. CRITICIZING INSTEAD OF COACHING

I don’t think that people respond well to negative criticism. Behavior is shaped by positive coaching. It’s a mistake when someone in a management role tries to “correct” someone in front of a group. No one likes to be embarrassed. But through positive coaching and real leadership, results can often be improved. – Laura Kerbyson, Laura Kerbyson Design Company

4. NOT CLEARLY STATING THE PROBLEM

Every situation is different; there is no hard and fast way to coach someone who is underperforming, and I certainly wouldn’t subscribe to “never” or “always.” People are too complex, and the work they’re doing is too important, for generalizations. One thing that needs to be very clearly stated is, “You are not meeting my expectations, and here is why….” Anything more or less can feel confusing. – Meagan Bowman, STOPWATCH

5. APOLOGIZING AFTER TOUGH FEEDBACK

Never apologize for giving constructive feedback. Having a tough conversation is a gift to the employee. You’re giving them the opportunity to grow and develop, and these hard talks can have a long-lasting impact on someone’s career. – Jessica Federer

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6. MAKING ASSUMPTIONS

The worse thing you can do is make assumptions. Don’t decide that the reason they didn’t get work done was inadequacy or incompetence or laziness. Instead, approach it from a helping perspective. Ask what hindered them. Find out if there is something you can do to help, whether it’s more training or someone to assist them. Accepting that your team will make mistakes instead of blaming them will go a long way. – Jason Hall, Five Channels

7. NOT FOCUSING ON RESULTS

Don’t talk about your employee’s intent—you can’t prove it and it isn’t relevant. Focus on the performance results and expectations. When you bring intent into the discussion (for example, implying that the employee isn’t trying hard), the employee will feel attacked, and the rest of the discussion will be moot. – Krishna Kutty, Kuroshio Consulting Inc.

8. EXPRESSING ANGER

Meeting with an underperforming employee to discuss subpar work is never easy. Avoid expressing disappointment or anger; instead, provide constructive criticism on how the person can do better next time. An incremental improvement over even a short timeframe can yield huge results and will enable the employee to recognize progress. – Evan Nierman, Red Banyan

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9. LETTING THEM THINK THEIR JOB’S IN JEOPARDY

If you don’t think this employee should be out of the way, then during the conversation you should emphasize that they are still a critical part of the company’s future and structure—they just need to get better at this one main thing. But don’t make them feel like you’re paving their way out. – Yoav Vilner, Walnut

10. USING A POWER DYNAMIC

Avoid any direct references to the power dynamic at play. When dealing with performance improvement, it’s best to ask questions and allow the employee to come to the same conclusion you did. Most people are aware when they are underperforming, willing to admit to it, and willing to come up with a solution. If you bring things up in a harsh way, however, they might get defensive. – Reuben Yonatan, GetVoIP

11. COMPARING THEM TO OTHERS

Never compare their performance to other employees’ performances. Life happens, and sometimes we get behind. It has nothing to do with other people. The best line of action is stating the problem clearly and swiftly, understanding where things went wrong, and talking openly about how best to do things next time. – Phnam Bagley, Nonfiction Design

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12. NOT SHOWING RESPECT

I believe this is a difficult scenario for both parties, but nothing beats open communication to iron things out and to understand where the employee is coming from. For me, a leader should never say, “I don’t pay you so I can do your job.” It does not show sympathy or compassion. It does not show a bit of understanding. Every leader must respect their team and employees, regardless of the situation. – Lane Kawaoka, SimplePassiveCashflow.com

13. SENDING MIXED MESSAGES

Don’t tell them they’re doing a good job. If you know they are underperforming, one of the worst things you can do is send unclear or mixed messages in an effort to spare their feelings. Unfortunately, this happens way too often, and the employee ends up with the message that their work product is fine. – Kevin Namaky, Gurulocity Brand Management Institute

14. LOSING YOUR TEMPER

It has been said, “The boss-subordinate relationship must be of mutual trust and reciprocal influence.” Leaders must never reinforce a dynamic that is backed by anger or disappointment. They must refrain from using discouraging or derogatory comments when addressing underperformers. Instead, the underperformance must be dealt with in a brief discussion that’s concluded with workable, meaningful solutions. – Irfan Khan, CLOUDSUFI

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15. TAKING AN AUTHORITATIVE TONE

“I’m the boss, and you should….” Never have an authoritative tone when speaking with an employee about their poor performance. Rather, the conversation should be an open dialogue that addresses how and why the employee is not meeting expectations. Together, you should define actionable next steps to help get the employee back on track. – Kelley Higney, Bug Bite Thing

16. TELLING THE EMPLOYEE TO “FIGURE IT OUT”

Never say, “You need to figure out how to improve.” This type of language implies that determining the path toward improvement is the sole responsibility of the employee. While employees should be reflective, the discussion should be collaborative—a joint problem-solving exercise between the leader and the employee. That way, the employee feels supported and can bring their best self to work. – Jason VandeBoom, ActiveCampaign