Helping line managers deliver tough messages

by 08 Jul 2008

Q. Some of our line managers are reluctant to have difficult conversations with employees who are underperforming. How can they deliver tough messages in performance reviews and not alienate their staff?

A. We’ve all heard them: “I’m sorry to tell you this, and don’t worry, but ... ”. Or: “I’m sure you’ll look back on this and think it was the best thing that ever happened.”I’m sure this kind of comment didn’t sound or feel true to you, whether you heard it or felt compelled to say it. In these types of situations – dismissals, performance problems, reorganisations, etc – the challenge is to deliver the message while maintaining the best possible relationship. Here are some ideas about making this two-pronged task easier.

First, to have a hard conversation successfully, the organisation needs to have created an atmosphere of respect for staff in previous situations. If the organisation has not consistently demonstrated respect for staff, a challenging situation will be met with scepticism even from the “best” staff, while those who feel more at risk are likely to feel suspicion and hostility – and react accordingly.

The keystones of respect for communicating with staff in a workplace are honesty, clarity of expectations, consistency of treatment, and fairness in policy and decision-making.

Second, the message should be clear and free of assumptions about reactions. Often the person delivering a tough message fears a bad reaction, and so apologises or “sugar coats” in advance, to try to head off problems that haven’t occurred. For instance, a manager might tell an employee not to worry when a performance management regime is being instituted. But trying to anticipate and head off reactions can come across as controlling or patronising behaviour and, therefore, manifest a strong reaction.

Third, your message will probably not be as much of a surprise as you may have thought. People understand they are not doing well, and may react in a variety of destructive ways. Some of those ways may be part of the root of their performance issues – such as defensiveness about making mistakes and therefore not taking any chances, fear of failure or success, lack or respect for themselves or others.

If the situation is not a surprise, pointing out the error can create a challenge to a person’s self esteem, self-respect or commitment because if feels like a personal attack rather than a work-performance correction. Your comments should clearly point out the difference.

However, being clear does not mean being harsh: it means dealing with the performance.

The adage “Separate the people from the problem: be hard on the problem, soft on the people” is a good guide.

As an example, listen to the difference between: “John, you are a poor employee so I am going to start you on a performance management regime and you better shape up or you’ll be gone” and: “John, your work performance has not been at an adequate standard; I am going to review with you a performance management regime, which is intended to create every reasonable opportunity to get your work up to a proper standard so you can continue to be employed here.”

In summary: focus your message on the issue rather than the person, make the message clear, fulfil your organisational goals without apology for them (if you don’t believe in them, why aren’t you working to change them or why are you working for that organisation?) and do so with respect and concern for the impact on the people involved.

Then the relationship can be maintained and take its proper place in the situation, supporting the work and communication between people in the workplace.

By Francis Handy, The Trillium Group. Tel: 02 9036 0331. Email: Web: