Have you ever dreaded having a conversation with an employee who wasn’t meeting performance expectations? Maybe you avoided it, hoping it would improve on its own? If so, you are not alone.

Most managers would agree that one of their least favorite tasks is talking to an employee about poor performance. When performance conversations are ignored, success is left up to interpretation. This can only result in conflict because everyone has different perceptions.

When an employee’s failures can no longer be avoided, too many managers say in frustration, “They should have known!” And the good-intentioned employee who thinks they are knocking it out of the park is shocked when they finally find out they are barely getting by.

Addressing performance issues can be unpleasant and stressful, but avoiding difficult discussions leads down dead-end roads:

High stress levels. There are enough things in life to stress out about, and discussing performance doesn’t need to be one of them. Stress is serious business. It accounts for 67 percent of all illness, according to one study.

Poor morale. One of the fastest ways to demotivate a team is to ignore poor performers. The rest of the team can see what’s going on, and they are looking to the manager to address it. When the manager doesn’t deal with it, this can result in negative attitudes. Bad attitudes are contagious, and soon there are bigger issues to deal with than one person’s performance.

Low-performing teams. People will perform to the standard that’s allowed. A manager who doesn’t hold people accountable sends the message that it’s OK to deliver less than what’s acceptable.

These are dead-ends to career growth, for both the employees and manager, and can affect the organization as a whole. They must be avoided.

Luckily, there is a better way, but first let’s look at some things that don’t work. At some point, every manager is tempted to take the softer, easier way. Here are some methods that have been tried:

Generic Emails Blasts

Avoid the temptation to send a generic email to the whole team to address an individual performance issue. The person who caused the problem doesn’t know you are talking to him because he isn’t intentionally doing anything wrong. Or, he knows the manager is talking about him, but he isn’t going to change because he knows he won’t be held accountable. It’s a no-win situation.

Posting Signs

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind

Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

—Five Man Electrical Band

The answer to the question, “Can’t you read the sign?” is no. Check out the common areas in your workplace, like the copier and break rooms. You might find a sign similar to “Clean up after yourself; your mother doesn’t work here.” Or, “Put all items back where you found them.” Despite the signs, the problems persist.

Signs generally don’t work because no one reads them, no matter how large or bold the font, or how many exclamation points are used.

Employee Handbook Updates

Another common method some managers try is asking HR to update the employee handbook. This method is probably the least effective of the three. The reality is that most employees don’t read the handbook—sorry, HR. In fact, one survey revealed that 61 percent of millennials did not read any or all of the employee handbook.

These methods don’t work. Let’s look at a simple three-step solution that does:

  • Set clear performance expectations
  • Communicate the performance expectations
  • Meet regularly to discuss performance progress

Set Clear Expectations

You can only hold people accountable when they know what’s expected of them. When performance expectations have been clearly defined, it’s easy to measure achievement and give feedback. The key is to define the expectation in black and white so there is no room for ambiguity. A manager must understand what is important to measure and how to measure it.

One company improved its order-entry accuracy rate from 65 percent to 99 percent after it defined the expectation for completion. The low completion rate was a result of the team leaving a field on the order form blank. They weren’t lazy; they just didn’t understand why the field needed to be completed, and the manager had never defined the expectation.

Communicate Expectations

Communicating performance expectations before there is a problem is the key to no-stress conversations later on.

Most people want to do a good job and will rise to the expectations when they know what they are. Don’t assume that people know. One survey revealed that 50 percent of employees don’t know what is expected of them at work.

Document the performance expectations and share them with new employees right away so they are set for success from the start.

Meet Regularly

Meeting regularly with people individually to discuss their progress creates a culture of trust. How often you need to meet with people varies, but a good rule of thumb is to meet at least once a month. If you defined and communicated the expectations in advance, there won’t be any surprises. The employee will know exactly how she’s doing. If she is falling short, you can turn it into a positive coaching conversation to help them get back on track.

When these three simple rules are followed, performance discussions are easy, transparent, and positive. The manager earns a good reputation, the team is motivated, and there is less conflict. Those are great benefits that result in successful teams and organizations that are able to fulfill their mission and purpose.

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