The do’s and don’ts of giving feedback to an underperforming employee

constructive feedback

This article is based on research for our recent eGuide, A small business guide to implementing employee performance reviews.

When an employee is coming up short, it’s important to address it head-on. Quality feedback – positive or negative – can motivate and engage an employee. Often times, constructive feedback can steer a problem employee back on track and, in turn, develop them into a better employee overall.

Increasingly, however, managers are taking an ongoing, in-the-moment approach to feedback – and with that shift comes a whole new list of tips and tricks to ensure the feedback is well-received, and as constructive as possible.

With that, here are eight do’s and don’ts when giving feedback to an underperforming employee:

Do: Be timely

The most effect feedback comes quickly after the action takes place. This keeps it relevant and meaningful, and ensures it’s fresh-of-mind for both the employee and the manager.

“A great manager gives feedback in the moment, both positive and constructive,” says Mary Legakis Engel, founder and CEO of leadership consultancy The Management Coach. “They care about the person so deeply, that being honest with them is more important than anything.”

Do: Be specific

Vague comments lead to defensiveness. Give constructive feedback in direct and specific terms, and have all relevant facts on-hand to support your claims.

Also, have suggestions for changes or actions ready to discuss with your report once their problematic behaviour has been acknowledged. Transitioning seamlessly into a “next steps” conversation will keep the feedback feeling constructive and less like an attack.

Don’t: be emotional

Before approaching the employee, it’s important to address and stabilize any anger or frustration about the situation. An especially common emotion to bring into the conversation is impatience. “Managers get impatient with underperformers because it’s frustrating to see someone fail,” says Engel.

However, any of these emotions can seriously derail the effectiveness of the feedback because it will make the employee feel attacked and, again, defensive. “A manager needs to neutralize their emotion, focus on the facts, and share the impact,” she says.

Do: Focus on patterns

“If an employee is consistently using a behaviour that leads to underperformance, the manager can describe the pattern,” says Engel. For example, something like “You often arrive late after lunch, and that seems to be impeding your ability to hit your deadlines” offers specific, direct insight that can be discussed further.

Exploring patterns also helps to put an action plan in place because it focuses on smaller, easier-to-address behaviours rather than big-picture issues that might overwhelm.

Don’t: Use absolutes

There is a caveat to the above mention of focusing on patterns: “Avoid using absolutes – ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘every time’. People who are showing a pattern of behaviour probably aren’t always showing it,” says Engel.

When you use absolutes, it gives the employee an argument against the issue or behaviour that you’re discussing – and once they have a way to defend themselves, they can shut down to the feedback you’re providing. By comparison, words like “often”, “at times”, and “frequently” present a more accurate version of the situation, and are gentler to the employee.

Do: Give them reason(s) to change

It’s all well and good to tell an employee how their actions (or lack of actions) are impacting the company – but that alone might not get through to them. “Remember, people change for their reasons, not your reasons. The impact has to be something important to the employee,” says Engel.

When addressing an issue, talk to the employee about how changing their behaviour can benefit them. Making their deadlines more consistently, for example, might result in them being able to take on a new project that they’re really passionate about.

Don’t: Get irrelevant

It’s important to limit constructive feedback to areas the employee has the ability to change – otherwise, you’re just being hurtful. Remember, there’s a difference between feedback and criticism, and only feedback is appropriate in the workplace. To quote Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain — and most fools do.”

Also, don’t pile on the problems. Stick to one timely issue, and the action plan to address it. If you discuss too many issues in one sitting, it will be overwhelming for the employee.

Do: Be kind

“Always strive to speak to your employee the way you would appreciate being spoken to,” says Engel. “Meet them where they are at.” Enough said.

For more tips and tricks on giving feedback, download our free eGuide, A small business guide to implementing employee performance reviews.

See also:
7 reasons why performance reviews are still important for your small business
5 steps to setting goals with your team


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