When Your Employee Is Underperforming

CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch. Feedback is information, and when it’s negative feedback about job performance, that’s a crux moment in the interaction between a manager and a subordinate. The employee might think they’re doing everything right, but the manager doesn’t see it that way, and ignoring it does no one any good; not the employee, not their supervisor.

Feedback is a tool to get back on the same page and moving in the same direction, but it can come as a surprise, and that employee might feel misunderstood or threatened, start disengaging and look for another job, and if it doesn’t come across effectively, the team and organization can suffer and miss their goals.

It’s why many managers often struggle with this moment. It’s a skill to give negative feedback in a way that is clear, and in a way that encourages positive behavior change, while still supporting your team member.

Our guest today is here with some recommendations. Jenny Fernandez is a team and executive coach, and she’s faculty at Columbia and NYU. She wrote the HBR article, How to Talk to an Employee Who Isn’t Meeting Expectations. Jenny, great to have you here.

JENNY FERNANDEZ: Thank you, Curt. It’s a pleasure to be here.

CURT NICKISCH: It seems like feedback should be something that managers are really trained on, and maybe get a lot of practice at, but in your work, it sounds like you found that that’s not really the case?

JENNY FERNANDEZ: Yes, that’s right. Especially middle managers, and early managers, don’t really gain any formal train in terms of how to manage people and how to give feedback. So the big expectation is that they’re going to learn on the job. Many times, the older generations allowed for these learning moments to happen. But what we are seeing these days is that the younger generations really are a little bit less patient in terms of allowing for these on the job learning through them.

CURT NICKISCH: You’re saying that the younger generation in the workforce is asking for feedback, wants more feedback, and wants it more directly than they maybe have gotten it in the past?

JENNY FERNANDEZ: Yes, 100%. I am a Gen Xer myself, and whether it’s Boomers or Gen Xers, we were trained with expectation that we will get feedback maybe once a year in the formal annual review process, and we were okay with that. We followed the rules. But the younger generations, both Millennials and Gen Zers are questioning more and more the status quo, and they want more in-the-moment feedback. With that said, managers haven’t been trained to give in-the-moment feedback, especially when sometimes this feedback is constructive. They feel disempowered about doing so.

CURT NICKISCH: It seems like, a lot of the time, managers don’t get into these kinds of conversations; don’t start talking about not meeting expectations until those situations get pretty bad or noticeable. Maybe because they’re afraid of it, maybe they just don’t want to have to deal with it, maybe because they think it’s going to fix themselves. How do you know that you’re doing this conversation at the right time?

JENNY FERNANDEZ: I think, as a manager, we have to challenge ourselves and ask, “What are the assumptions that I am bringing to this topic?” As you mentioned, sometimes managers think it’s on the individual to fix this and to perform, and when you think that way, you obviously have an underlying expectation of what good looks like. One of the key areas where managers can self-reflect, and look at what is their role in the fact that their employee is not meeting expectation, is, “Am I communicating what good looks like? What is a good result?”

And I want to step back, Curt, because sometimes what we hear from the employees is that, in my point of view, as an employee, I am delivering, so I should be getting great feedback. But from a manager perspective, usually delivering means both the outcome – positive outcome of the project – and also a positive outcome of the process. How are you working with people? The rest of the team? Is this something that is actually delivering for everyone?

CURT NICKISCH: Is it harder to deliver conversations like this at a time when the job market is tight, and companies may not want to lose employees because it’s harder to replace them?

JENNY FERNANDEZ: Definitely. Obviously when the employee market is doing well, and employees have a lot of options, people are very concerned with attrition and job dissatisfaction, as well as engagement, because it does impact your productivity even if you remain in the workplace.

CURT NICKISCH: So let’s talk about this situation, where you do have to sit down and just talk about how they’re not meeting expectations, and reset them, and get back on the same page and move right direction. What do you need to do ahead of that difficult conversation?

JENNY FERNANDEZ: So I advise managers, frankly, to prepare. Especially for a difficult conversation, you have to put in the time, and this can take many different facets. First of all, it’s really your own self-reflection to understand what have you done to set up this individual for success, whether you communicated the expectations for the role, for the job, both in the outcome and in the process. What have you already communicated to them along the way?

Because some of the challenges that we have with feedback is that we are vague, and we need specificity. We need specific examples that really allow the individual to understand, “What am I doing well,” and, “What am I doing that is not working out so well?”

This is why being in the moment is that could actually really help you, because if you happen to be in a project meeting with this individual, you have just observed how they perform to deliver the project goals and outcomes, and you have also the opportunity to see how they perform working with other people. So at the end of that meeting, that’s the potential great opportunity to give feedback, whether it is a recognition of a job well done, or constructive feedback of what they can do better, and how they can follow up. Because, again, they have the opportunity to reengage and continue to improve past that meeting.

CURT NICKISCH: To what extent should you be getting information from other team members, or that employee’s colleagues, or other stakeholders, and clients and customers, to be able to help present that information when you have that difficult conversation?

JENNY FERNANDEZ: I think, as a manager, when we’re doing touch points, or one-on-one meetings about specific projects, we have the ability to understand from the employee, basically, what is working, and what is not. What are the occasions where you, as a manager, may need to step in and remove roadblocks for this employee? I think this will give you a lot of facts and data, and even the opportunity to touch base with other people within the team, and that’s where you can gather direct feedback, almost like a mini-360-degree feedback, and you can get concrete examples of what’s working, what’s not.

I think, in that way, managers will feel a little bit more empowered that they have the full picture, and the full story to share with the individual, in terms of any specific constructive feedback that they need to provide.

CURT NICKISCH: Isn’t there a danger, there, of that employee feeling like you went behind them for feedback, or they might wonder, “Why didn’t that person bring that up to me directly? Why do I have to hear it through my boss?” That person could feel attacked by that.

JENNY FERNANDEZ: Yeah. No, thank you for sharing that. We cannot forecast or project the reaction of the individual, but I can speak about both sides. I can tell you specific situations where the individual may feel, like you said, attacked, or, “Why they didn’t come to me?” At the same time, I can tell you about situations and examples where, if the manager is the sole person behind the feedback, the employee may think, “Well, you’re the problem. I’m not the problem. Everybody in the team thinks I’m doing well.”

CURT NICKISCH: One thing I thought was interesting in your article is that you point out that you should start this conversation where you’re delivering negative feedback about not meeting expectations, with success – with what success looks like. It seems simple, but a lot of the time people are given that feedback without a sense of what better looks like, rather than what went wrong.

JENNY FERNANDEZ: Yes. Actually, Curt, something that I didn’t incorporate in this article, but I think it will be good for the audience to hear, especially folks who like frameworks. As a coach, we use the ORID model, so that’s O-R-I-D; Objective, Reflective, Interpretive, and Decisional questions. I think one of the first steps that we need to think about is, “What are the objective questions? What can give us facts and actual observable data that could serve as data points that you can share with this individual to reflect on what happened?” One of those questions is, “What are the key milestones, or achievements, or success points from this project?”

CURT NICKISCH: What tone are you shooting for here? I’m just curious how this sounds to an employee. Is this like, “Here, I’m telling you a bunch of things.” What’s the mode of communication here?

JENNY FERNANDEZ: The tonality is really important here, because you want to make sure that the employee doesn’t feel this is a fact-finding investigation, where they’re just looking for information to put me in the wrong. They really need to feel that, “Hey, this is just objective information gathering,” or looking to understand the facts, the data, so that they feel empowered to change behavior and to approach the problems in different way. I always think about it more as a problem-solving discussion versus a fact-finding.

CURT NICKISCH: How much talking are you doing, versus how much listening you’re doing, and question asking are you doing?

JENNY FERNANDEZ: Yeah. No, that’s great. I almost see this conversation as a coaching discussion, where, as a manager, you should be doing maybe 20, 25% of the talking, just setting up open-ended questions as much as possible. There is opportunity for a close-ended question, because you need to understand the level of accountability and how they’re reflecting. But I think I would recommend to just create a prompt so that the employee feels that they have the space, the opportunity to speak and share their mind. It also gives you more information as the manager, so that you understand their point of view, how do they see their performance, and identify what are potential ways that you can step up and help through training or advice.

CURT NICKISCH: You said accountability. What are you listening for when you’re asking an employee to reflect on how certain work was done, or a project went – what are you listening for?

JENNY FERNANDEZ: Yeah. I think, as a manager, they have to listen for their internal reflection. Are they looking at their actions and their behaviors, and what they have done, the impact that it has created? I see this as almost like are they connecting the dots from their actions, the results that they’re getting, or are they solely looking externally at the environment and in other people? Because while they may say…

Sometimes in coaching, Curt, we talk about, “If you had a magic wand, what would you do?” If you ask that type of questions, this, “What if,” it gives them the opportunity to reflect on how they can change their own behaviors. But if the story keeps focus on other people or the environment, “I will have a new team. I will have a longer budget, a longer timeline,” then that means that they are deflecting accountability, that they see everything is outside of their control and they’re more of a victim of the circumstance.

CURT NICKISCH: It can be both, right? But you’re really trying to focus on that person’s role, and so if they don’t acknowledge any accountability within the circumstances that they’re in, that’s a flag for you to pay attention to, it sounds like.

JENNY FERNANDEZ: Yes, and you’re completely correct, 100%. It can be both, but we like to acknowledge in the coaching process, life is not fair, but we have to work within the environment that we have, and, frankly, try to be the change agent, versus feeling like you’re the victim of the situation. That’s coming from a disempowered place. If you, again, change and evolve a little bit the way you look at things, obviously, the manager needs to be empathetic and acknowledge that, “You know what? I completely understand you. I have been in situations where I haven’t had the right resources.”

They might even want to acknowledge, “We don’t have the number of resources that we need in order to be 100% successful, so we’re asking the team to step up.” I think this is an opportunity for the manager to potentially be vulnerable, and share how they feel, and how they’re approaching the situation themselves differently. Because it is, at the end of the day, a learning moment where the employee has to step up, acknowledge their actions, try to, again, shift to a problem-solving mindset, and look for opportunities to get a better outcome.

CURT NICKISCH: Do you often have to break off the conversation and continue it later? I imagine sometimes you might be sharing something that could be a surprise to somebody, and they’re still just processing what happened, or how that feedback came about, or why a miscommunication exists in the first place.

JENNY FERNANDEZ: I would say that it depends. For the most part, definitely when speaking about a constructive piece of feedback, you may need to have more than one touch point with employee. I think at the beginning, especially if it is a surprise to them, this is something that will need to be revisited, and it does allow them the opportunity to reflect. I think, in the moment, people are going to be really thinking about their feelings of the situation, and you do have to give them the space and the time to reflect back to acknowledge, or frankly just bring up other facts and information that they want to bring up at a later point in time.

CURT NICKISCH: How often does it come up that a manager might realize that they’ve contributed to this, that the situation is maybe different than what the manager thought after talking to this employee? You know for instance, we had an episode a few years back, that made the argument about feedback, that maybe you’re trying to get somebody to be good at something that isn’t their best skill, and you’re realizing that you actually need to change what they work on so that they’re able to work more on what they’re good at. Does that sound true to you, that you’re in that problem-solving mode where you feel like you, as a manager, need to change how the team is working?

JENNY FERNANDEZ: Yeah. No, that is a great point that you bring up. I think, again, it’s both, and it goes back to the expectations that the manager may have. If the individual, for example, is in a role, let’s say a role that is very analytical, and that is simply not what they’re good at, they’re more strategic. Then, I think, as I mentioned in my article, that you have to truly, again, go back and ask them what are their values? What drives them? What do they want out of their time with their company, so that you’re thinking longer term, not just about that specific moment in time or project.

And really, you’re able to share with the individual that the share experience that they’re having, and their goals that they’re going to put in place to course correct that feedback and the situation, is really going to be in their service. Because, obviously, not all of us are going to be our best in every situation, but we can be, “evaluated” on the effort that we put into it, and also in the result.

CURT NICKISCH: I want to get at the stakes, here, for the employee. Obviously, you’re trying to get them in alignment with the way the team’s going, and in a way that’s going to keep them happy and productive as well. It’s very easy, when you’re giving negative feedback for that employee, to feel like, “Oh, gosh, this is like, am I going to get a performance improvement plan?”


CURT NICKISCH: Or, “I’m in the hot seat now,” and they might be very careful about giving information, so just feeling very defensive, and the defenses go up.

JENNY FERNANDEZ: Yes. Obviously, again, especially if it is constructive feedback, it could be a surprise, a moment, where they feel like, again, everybody’s against them. You have to be empathetic and acknowledge what is happening.

And frankly, Curt, something that we haven’t even mentioned that, obviously, we are more than just our work. Many times there are things happening at home, emotional wellness. That also comes into play. Since the pandemic, there’s so much emphasis on having the grace, and giving others the grace, to be a whole person at the workplace.

I think this is a moment in time where you have to look, as a manager, at the bigger picture. Again, ask, be curious. Ask questions to understand what are their values? What is driving them? What do they want? Because in this way, you’re looking to create this moment where they see that you are trying to find a shared experience and a shared objective. One of the tactics that I use is really about the stakeholder centered leadership, where you both ask for feedback from other people on the team, but you also make them accountable for the success of the individual as well.

Because as you mentioned, you may be getting feedback from someone, but this other individual may not be trying to set the person up for success, for many reasons. Let me give you a quick example. Sometimes, if you are in a place that is used to doing work a certain way, somebody who has been there for 15, 20 years may not be open to a new process, may not be open to change or to a new product, let’s say, if you’re launching that.

Usually, the individuals who get in the hot seat, as you said, are because they are change agents. They’re looking to launch a new product, to driving a process, to use technology in a different way, and that challenges some people. This is why we need to, again, get the full picture, understand what went wrong, and make sure that the rest of the team knows that everyone is responsible for helping this individual be successful. We’re not an island.

CURT NICKISCH: Is it ever helpful to share stories of your own, as a manager, like the times in the past where you’ve gotten negative feedback, and how it was helpful in your personal growth?

JENNY FERNANDEZ: Oh, yes, completely. I think it allows for a vulnerable moment where, as a manager, you’re basically saying, “Hey, I’m here with you. I’ve been there. I can share an example of things that didn’t go right for me. This is the learning moment that I had, these are the key takeaways that I had, and this is how I course corrected, and used this to, again, accelerate my career, and change my own actions, and change people’s expectations of me.” I think it’s a way to be a little bit more humble, and to really, again, show the employee that, “I’m here with you.” I think it’s about building trust.

Because, again, getting bad feedback, especially feedback that is unexpected, is going to put employee in a defensive, is going to make them feel that they’re a scapegoat, potentially, if the project’s not doing well. You want to make sure that they see you that as a person, “I have been in your seat. I grew up in this career, just as you are.” I think this is an opportunity where managers should take advantage of that, and, again, remove any barriers so that, again, you’re trying to create strong bond with employees so that they feel that you are not only a manager, but almost like, quote/unquote, a mentor, somebody who is investor in their success.

CURT NICKISCH: Building trust. I think that’s such an important point, because you’re going to be working on new projects after that. You’re going to be tasking them with other things, and you want to know that that working relationship is going to be stronger going forward.

JENNY FERNANDEZ: Yes, exactly. I think managers should also take this as a learning experience for themselves, because at the end of the day, if an employee, if one of their direct reports is not doing well, other people are seeing this. So we have to take ownership of the results we’re getting, and managers need to understand that an employee that’s not delivering is also a reflection of their management style.

CURT NICKISCH: You also argue that resetting expectations is important. What do you mean by that?

JENNY FERNANDEZ: Yes, I’m a big fan of Cher, and I always say that we cannot turn back time, we cannot change the past. One of the biggest challenges that companies have is that people don’t know what are their roles and responsibilities. I think this is becoming more and more of a problem, because sometimes if you don’t have the right number of resources, you have freezes, employee freezes in the job. You may have put a lot more focus on the current employees to do more. Many times, I think it’s the lack of understanding of the rules and responsibilities and the clarity around that is part of the problem. This resetting of expectations, so that they know what they’re fully accountable for, is really, again, an opportunity for starting over so that they know, “These are the rules of the game. This is how,” quote/unquote, “you’re being evaluated and graded so that you know what you need to do.”

CURT NICKISCH: What’s an example of that? I’m just curious, what does that sound like when you reset expectations? What might a manager say?

JENNY FERNANDEZ: So some of the questions that I advise managers to think about, basically, are about ask an individual what are specific actions, behaviors that they want to take in order to have a different outcome for the project? As I mentioned earlier, I would talk about, both the specifics of the project in terms of what are the steps that you want to create? What are milestones that you have? I almost see it, Curt, as a mini plan where you can create a goal for, well, co-create, I should say, a goal with your employee about, “What is something that you’re looking to create, maybe, within the next month or the next quarter,” so that you can use that as a goal that you’re working towards with your employee, and that it could be, again, something tangible that they can see in order to get feedback from the manager again, and from other people on the project.

I think that way it makes it, again, more concrete and forward-looking, and is less about the final result and more about the process. That way you’re providing the opportunity for the employee to elaborate and think about their actions, come to you for feedback, and you are, again, co-creating that new result together, and potentially even involving other stakeholders for that project, so that individual feels and they are able to proactively request feedback from them. Again, it goes back to creating a shared experience for everyone.

CURT NICKISCH: Jenny, this has all been really insightful. Thanks so much for coming on the show to talk about this.

JENNY FERNANDEZ: Thank you, Curt. It’s been a pleasure.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s team and executive coach Jenny Fernandez. She wrote the article, How to Talk to an Employee Who Isn’t Meeting Expectations. It’s at hbr.org.

And we have nearly 1,000 episodes, plus more podcasts, to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career. Find them at hbr.org/podcasts, or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Thanks to our team, senior producer Mary Dooe, associate producer Hannah Bates, audio product manager Ian Fox, and Senior production specialist Rob Eckhardt. Thank you for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Curt Nickisch.

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