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How do I have a conversation with a direct report who is clearly underperforming, but I have limited metrics?   

LOGAN, Product Marketing Manager - Fortune 500 Software Company

Logan, this is a great question and a critical one, as it is an example of one the three components of great leadership: Managing Conversations.


We categorize a performance discussion as a Pivotal Conversation, a term coined by Joiner and Josephs in their book Leadership Agility. A conversation is considered pivotal when there are important outcomes resting on how the conversation proceeds. Many things have to happen for this conversation to be successful, so let’s start with the basics.

You actually do have metrics besides the ones you mention in your question: Your observations and the feedback you solicit from others.




It starts with an awareness of your own personal biases. Whether we recognize it or not, we all bring personal biases to bear on our observations. While our observations are valid, they are only ever partial and these biases influence the true picture. Many leaders make this mistake because they are only looking through the lens of their own experience and training. It is important to test these opinions against the evidence of other perspectives. Catalyst level leaders understand  they will not always have the right information or that their perceptions may be wrong. Awareness of personal bias and an open mind leads to self-examination, which is a critical step in broadening your perspective and being a well-informed leader.

An informal assessment or a more formal 360 assessment will allow you to test your assumptions and add to your limited metrics. For an informal assessment, talk with stakeholders: customers, fellow team members, direct reports or other managers that interact with your employee. What impact does their performance have on others? What are the strengths of the employee? Where do the opportunities for improvement lie? What challenges might be impeding performance?  Is it a training issue? A communication issue? Which processes are/aren’t working well ? Is there a poor culture fit? Does this employee exhibit strengths better served in a different department or position? It is important to gain as much information as possible (and as practical, given time constraints) before embarking on the conversation.

Never blind-side an employee: Allow them the opportunity to prepare for your meeting by giving them a general idea of the topic at hand and the time to prepare.

An informal assessment or a more formal 360 assessment will allow you to test your assumptions and add to your limited metrics.

Pivotal Conversation:


1. Begin with general, open-ended questions (what, who, how, when) to allow your employee to address problems or difficulties first. Avoid beginning a question with “why?” as it will put the employee on the defensive.

How is XYZ project coming along? How is your work proceeding? What is your perspective on the approach to this project? When do you expect to complete it?

2.  If the employee addresses your concerns by surfacing valid problems outside his or her control, the remaining conversation will be about external problem solving. However, if performance problems are surfaced or the employee is completely unaware of their lack of performance then the pivotal conversation needs to continue. Hopefully, the employee has provided a lead for you to “drill down” to the core issues. If the employee has no awareness, you might say:

Let me share my observations and the feedback I have received from others (deadline missed/poor quality/complaints from stakeholders or team members). Also, take the time to highlight the employee’s strengths in order to have a more balanced conversation. For example, I understand that X is a problem. I know from some of your previous work that you bring a wealth of knowledge to…  What do you think is happening here? I want to gain your perspective and agree on a course of action.

3.  Explain why it is a problem and what the consequences are for their team, stakeholders, etc. Allow the employee to respond to your feedback. Listen and acknowledge his or her perspective. Your goal should be to uncover the issues by asking the right questions.

What is getting in your way? What additional resources do you need? What are your goals for the next step in this company? What steps do you think are necessary to achieve those goals? What ideas do you have that would improve your performance in the position you now hold?” An example of a response might be, “I never get any help when I ask for it, everyone piles projects on me all at once, other departments never get back to me, etc.” 

4. Listen carefully and understand their true priorities. Is there something you were unaware of that is impacting the issue? Ask yourself what might be missing and enroll him or her into the solution.  

What is your plan to address this issue? What help do you need from me to be successful and how can I support you? What suggestions do you have for accountability?


5.  Agree on the support, if needed. (Will you run interference with competing priorities? Recommend additional training? Help employee remove obstacles? How will your employee win in this discussion as well?)


6.  Agree on the plan, the measurement and the timeline, and check in frequently. If you are a part of the plan, follow through!


7.  Schedule a second meeting if the employee needs time to formulate their plan for improvement and agree on next steps you will both take going forward.

Genesa Leadership offers leadership coaching in all facets of Managing Conversations

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