How Do Have a Performance Improvement Conversation?

There are few things more uncomfortable than having a performance conversation. However, it’s necessary for the growth and development of both the employee and the company. If you manage or supervise employees, you will have to hold performance improvement conversations periodically. As a result, you need to be skilled at them. Unfortunately, most managers avoid performance discussions or aren’t direct enough when they do happen. This post discusses how to have an effective performance conversation so that everyone can get back on track quickly!

Why is it important to have performance conversations with employees?

When managers avoid having performance improvement conversations, everyone suffers. Here are the consequences of allowing a poor-performing employee to go unaddressed.

  • The rest of the team have to work harder to pick up the slack for the underperforming employee
  • The manager ruins their credibility because the employee is underperforming
  • The organization doesn’t achieve its goals
  • The organization loses clients due to non or poor performance
  • The employee earns a bad reputation
  • The employee’s growth and development stall
  • Employee retention suffers
  • Poor performance spreads because there are no consequences for producing poor work

So when you avoid telling an employee they need to improve, there is a downstream impact that affects many in the organization. As a manager, it is your job to have effective performance improvement conversations. So stop procrastinating and thinking the problem will resolve itself. That rarely happens. Instead, consider these tips and commit to having that performance improvement conversation you’ve been putting off.


How do you tell an employee they need to improve their performance?

The objective of a performance conversation is to change the employee’s performance. It is not to punish, shame, or otherwise devalue them. Therefore you don’t want to avoid having them because doing so makes the performance improvement conversation harder. Or worse, the employee ends up in a situation where termination is unavoidable.

Get the employee to talk about their performance

Knowing how the employee views their performance is the best place to start a performance improvement conversation. Ask how they feel they are doing with their goals. Have them provide the metrics and examples of how they measure their performance. How they evaluate their performance determines what you say next.

At best, you are both on the same page, and you can go to the next phase of the performance improvement conversation. However, if they partially agree, you need to provide additional examples of specific situations where they fell short. However, if they feel they are meeting the performance expectations, you have to have the courage to disagree. Here again, you will provide specific examples or situations where their performance wasn’t in line with the expectations of their role.


So, the first step to having a performance improvement conversation is to get the employee’s perspective of their performance, share your concerns about their performance, and provide your observations with specific examples and situations where they underperformed.

Determine the root cause of the employee’s poor performance

The next step in having a performance improvement conversation is to understand the cause of the employee’s poor performance. Is something in their personal life contributing to the poor performance? Is there something at work or within the team that is causing them to perform poorly? External factors that impact an employee’s performance are:

  • Family issues – maybe they need time off to focus on their family
  • Team issues – are they not getting along with the team or having interpersonal conflicts that are holding them back
  • Burned out – how long has it been since their last day off or vacation?
  • Overloaded with work – do they have too many projects and are struggling to prioritize them?

Learning about the context of their situation allows you to pivot and offer accommodations. Let them know you want them to succeed and ask how you can help. Offering flexibility with scheduling, time off to help with burnout, or removing projects from their plate are all within the manager’s control. Each employee is different and has different needs. So a one-size-fits-all approach to performance improvement conversations won’t work.


Share how their poor performance is impacting the team

People are more self-centered than they care to believe. Often, when an employee is underperforming, they don’t always recognize how it impacts the team. So it is important to connect their poor performance to the team and company. Unfortunately, if you can’t explain the negative impact their poor performance is having during the performance improvement conversation, they will not see a need to improve.

Your performance improvement conversation can’t dance around the edges of the impact of their poor performance. You have to have the courage to have a direct conversation about their performance and the impact it is having on the team.

Tell them the non-negotiables

Now it’s time to provide a list of non-negotiable expectations. Sometimes employees aren’t clear on what the performance standard looks like and what they need to do to meet them. Come prepared to discuss the metrics that the employee needs to meet and any deadlines associated with them. What does the escalation path look like if they will miss a deadline? How do they raise their hand to ask for help?


Ask for their solutions to improve performance

During this phase of the performance improvement conversation, get the employee to develop solutions to meet the performance standard within the timelines established. By letting the employee develop solutions to fix their performance, you get their buy-in. You can guide the discussion with questions, but you can’t tell them what they need to do.

Outline what steps you will take to support them

In this step of the performance improvement conversation, outline the actions you will take to support them in achieving the performance standard. For example, will you have more frequent check-ins? Will you increase your coaching sessions? Are there additional tools or reports you can provide that will help the employee improve their performance? Whatever steps you agree to provide, make sure you can commit. Otherwise, if the employee fails, they can blame you for not following through on your commitment.

Set timelines for when you need to see improvement

Now you need to set timelines for when the agreed-upon actions and areas of improvement need to be seen. You can have multiple timelines in your plan. Some items may need immediate improvement, while others are gradual and demonstrated over time. This step is a negotiation, so solicit their input on the timelines but push back if their timelines are unreasonable.


Determine a follow-up date

When will you meet again to review their performance? However, this is different from providing additional check-ins or coaching sessions. Your follow-up date is when you will check their progress in meeting the agreed-upon performance standards. The follow-up date for the performance improvement discussion should consider the timelines established in the previous step.

Send a recap of the performance improvement conversation

After the meeting, send a recap of the discussion. Make sure that your recap clearly outlines what you both agreed to in each step. Include any metrics and timelines associated with the performance improvement discussion. And, finally, send the invites for any follow-up dates to ensure you stick to your commitments.

Addressing underperforming employees is the responsibility of the manager. But, unfortunately, most managers avoid performance improvement conversations because they don’t like conflict and don’t want to make anyone feel bad. Do you know what a worse feeling than having to address underperforming employees is? A worse conversation to have is to fire someone because they aren’t meeting the demands of their job. These steps will help you overcome your fear of addressing employee performance and have an effective performance improvement conversation.


Share examples of how you’ve turned an underperforming employee around in the comments below.

Get the Weekly Roundup

Join thousands of other career-minded people who receive early access to my career-changing articles.

Jason Cortel is currently the Director of Global Workforce Management for a leading technology company. He has been in customer service, marketing, and sales services for over 20 years. In addition, he has extensive experience in offshore and nearshore outsourcing. Jason is an avid Star Trek fan and is on a mission to change the universe by helping people develop professionally. He is driven to help managers and leaders lead their teams better. Jason is also a veteran in creating talent and office cultures.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Need advice or help with your boss? Click to Learn More.