Like most managers, I have occasionally had to talk to one of my staff about shortcomings in their performance, and I had another instance recently. I’m sure that few managers start a performance management conversation lightly, because deliberately choosing the uncertainty of potential conflict and relationship damage is uncomfortable. Some managers never find the courage to go there at all.
On the other hand, as a manager I know that I easily forget that such a conversation is usually at least as stressful for the staff member. Neither of us want to be having the conversation; certainly neither of us want to have to repeat it. Both of us tend to exaggerate the power the other has in the situation – as a result, both of us feel vulnerable, which for most people is a profoundly uncomfortable place to be, and so can lead to unhelpful behaviours. The problem is likely to appear to be a zero-sum game with a winner and a loser.
However, there is another way of looking at it. Provided we are careful not to take advantage, that mutual vulnerability can be a foundation for strengthened and renewed trust, which in turn may mean that the staff member cares more about the improvements you seek. Taking that approach may well give you the best chance of a successful outcome, but to do so requires you to be careful to avoid hiding behind the power of your authority as a manager. To do that takes courage – but done with openness and integrity it can work.
Obviously every situation is different, but a good place to start is with an honest and straightforward explanation of how the person’s actions are making you feel, avoiding emotive language. If the other person feels it is safe to reciprocate, and to help you to understand their point of view, you have a chance of working out how to improve things together. That’s real performance management! You may even finish up with both of you feeling you are winners: more cake for both of you, not different shares.