I have an employee who is struggling month after month to meet their goals. How do I have the difficult conversation with them about needing to improve?

September 6th, 2019

The Difficult Conversation

Great question – I hear this from many managers fairly consistently.  The truth is that difficult conversations can be tough, however they don’t have to be.  Often my clients think the conversation is going to be difficult for the other person (the receiver), but surprisingly it’s sometimes more difficult for the person delivering the news.  Here are my tips for having the ‘dreaded difficult conversation’:

1.  Stop avoiding – doing nothing is often the costliest mistake – in time, lost productivity, allowing a negative attitude to spread or avoiding dealing with a lack of performance.  It leaves an imprint on your team and the entire organization, and not a positive one.

2.  Plan for the conversation – Get clear on what your intention is for the conversation.  What do you want the other person to take away, and can you summarize that in 15 words or less (succinctly and clearly)?  Also, how is your energy?  Are you frustrated, angry, anxious?  All those emotions will be picked up upon by your listener so take the time to reset yourself and show up calm, clear and non-defensive.  Lastly, take some time to ask yourself – what was my role in this situation?  Have I contributed to the lack of performance in some way?  If so, be clear on that and own up to anything you think you may have done to contribute to the current situation – that will give you a better foundation to solve the problem or issue together.

3.  Be present – when it’s time to have the conversation, schedule the time and place where you can give the person and conversation your undivided, full attention.

4.  Use ‘I’ language – We often start these types of conversations with “you need to, you should, you aren’t….”.  Using the word ‘you’ creates defensiveness.  Shift the language to I:  I want to discuss the performance I see; I notice a drop in your pipeline, etc.  That shifts the conversation to the issue, and helps direct the conversation around a solution, as opposed to blame and making someone wrong.

5.  Offer choice – the more empowered people are the happier and more productive they are.  So, allow the listener to look at what choices they have available and what choices they want to make.  Sometimes this requires some great listening and digging.  For example, if I have someone not meeting activity goals because they don’t have the time or don’t know what to do, I could ask questions to help them uncover their own solution and choices.  That might look something like:

  • a.  What have you done already?
  • b.  Why do you think it hasn’t worked?
  • c.  What haven’t you tried?
  • d.  What strategies have you seen others use?
  • e.  What would you do if you had no fear of failure?

This strategy is about listening and asking enough questions to help the other person see solutions and options.

6.  Get clear on agreements – We often forget the last step on this.  Once we have solutions or new ideas, then it’s time to get crystal clear.  What will you be doing, by when and how will I know?  If you don’t have those 3 questions answered you don’t have clarity.  Follow up on everything agreed upon not to check up, but because you care about solving the problem.


Whatever you do, don’t avoid the difficult conversation – that only make things worse.  Plan, direct and care enough to have the tough conversation.  By doing so you can help uncover solutions and gain clear agreements on actions and change going forward.


As always, your BankTalentHQ coaches are here to help.  Please reach out via email or phone if we can support you.

For more career, sales, and leadership advice please contact our coaches
Joe Micallef – Sales Coach – email joe@growupsales.com, or call (773) 329 0066
Donna Flynn – Career/Management Coach – email dflynn@skillsmastery.com, or call (630) 624-4319