As you go up in the corporate ladder, there will be instances when you will have to deliver the bad news. It may not be as bad as ‘you are fired’ (even though that may come up) but bad enough news to upset people. Yes, we are talking about giving honest feedback to an under performer.
Reason for feedback is to help people steer in the right direction to meet the company’s objectives. Sometimes, this steering may require nudging people who are going off course.
Giving feedback that is not pleasant is, well, unpleasant. In order to ease into the discussion consider the following scheme of setting the stage.
Ask the person how they think they did?
As soon as your discussion begins, don’t jump into the ‘bad’ part. Give the opportunity to the individual to talk about what they think about “how he/she did during the year (or whatever your performance period is)”. Listen carefully. You may find some perception variances, that is, individual may be working under the assumption of thinking he/she is doing a great job while you or your group thinks improvement is necessary. There will be instances, where individual knows what is lacking in their performance and they may be honest in expressing that.
Ask follow up questions.
If the individual doesn’t come up with any leads that you can build on, ask probing questions like “What are few changes you would make for the coming year to make it your best year”. If the individual told you what they think needs to be improved, then you may ask “What plans do you have in place and what can I/we do to help you?” Be sincere in your offer to help.
Talk about your feedback and what others provided – start positive.
After you have spent sometime on the above two sections, you can go into what the actual feedback for the year is. Do not ever rush the conversation – you have to find a right time to shift the gears. You always start out by stating the positives. Provide examples of things that the individual excels or does well compared to the peers. After that, you have to list out the things that need to be changed to be able to meet the company’s expectations.
Talk about specific areas that drove final rating.
Word “However” is your best friend when it comes to delivering a less than ‘meets expectations’ feedback. After you have listed the positives and improvement needs observed you can say something like “You have positive attributes about your work style, however, compared to the peers and where we expect someone at your level to perform, the improvement needs we identified, specifically (list the main items that drove the feedback here), have driven your rating to be a “C” (or whatever your rating system is).
Expect resistance and be ready to listen
People will not jump off their chairs with excitement when they hear that they have been ranked low. Be open to listen to their side of the story. Things may come up that you were not aware of (like, person going through personal trauma or changes to their health, relationships, etc). If some of these reasons are serious impediments to performance and if you have the ability to go back and revise your feedback to give the individual another opportunity – do so. Where you cannot change the rating or feedback, at least be empathetic to their situation. See what your company can do to support him/her with their situation. The conversation may also go total south where person may walk out and quit – possible – be prepared.
Give specific examples and guidelines for how to meet or exceed expectations.
For the items you discussed specifically that drove the rating down, discuss what can be done and how you and your team will help navigate and monitor the progress. Set specific targets for the immediate future – like next 2 weeks, 1 month, quarter, etc. Have follow up meetings set up. Whatever help you can provide to help the individual turnaround their feedback from less than meeting expectations to exceeding expectations.
Even though the experience of providing bad feedback is unpleasant – there are lot of stories where individuals have turned around the performance and excelled at their careers. If you receive lot of resistance and individual decides to quit, well, that may help them finding a career that fits best for them as well.