Covert Answers: Having “The Talk” with an Underperforming Colleague

5 years ago

[This post first appeared on the Covert Leadership blog. It has been edited slightly for BlogHer. Read the original here.] 

Covert Answers is a feature where Covert Leadership Agents answer reader questions and provide advice. Submit your questions here.


Dear Agents:

I have a friend/colleague who isn’t pulling her weight on the team. Other people have noticed too, and I think she’s in danger of losing her job. I know she’s capable! How can I tell her this in a way that she’ll actually hear me?

- BJ

Agent M1 says:

This was happening to a colleague when I joined a company as her manager. My approach was to find out what she loved doing, and to discuss what was necessary but not-so-fun. We talked about the overall goal for her position in the company, how it added value and how much it mattered whether she was performing big (important) or small (menial) tasks. Together we identified the area between the love and hate of her role and referred to it as the “gap”, and talked about how to narrow it.

By encouraging her, giving her enough positive feedback where she might have been lacking from peers and talking about how her tenor and approach mattered when speaking to colleagues, she turned it around. Suddenly I was being informed that she had “changed”. And she was happier and contributing a lot more.

In the end, she felt empowered and moved on when she realized that the “gap” couldn’t be entirely narrowed due to her lack of passion in her role.

Agent N1 says:

That’s a tough one.  Meet privately and be fairly frank with them – yet tactful.  Your level of frankness will depend on how well you know them and your work relationship.  If they are more of a friend than colleague, you can be quite open.  If they are more of a colleague, less so.  And if you have any kind of line management relationship. you’ll need be quite diplomatic.

Tell them that you’ve noticed that they don’t seem to be as engaged/productive/reliable as needed (word this as appropriate, based on the nature of your relationship).  Let them know that you feel others have noticed too.

Coach them through the situation by listening to what they have to say.  Pay attention to their non-verbal responses.  Remind them of how capable and necessary they are.  Let them know how much you and the rest of the team depend on their valuable input.  And gently let them know the potential consequences to not adjusting their work habits.

Good luck!

Agent S1 says:

Ugh. This is one of my least favorite situations.

You may need to try several different communication tactics. I had a similar situation where I first approached my friend in a straightforward and logical way. That got us no-where, so on my next attempt I talked to him about how his actions were affecting the rest of the team. Yeah, I admit, it was essentially a guilt-trip, but, in this particular case it worked! I think it helped that I presented it in a non-emotional way, like this:

“I understand why you’re doing this, but when you do, X, Y, Z and I need to do these other things so that we can meet our common goal. You can see how that affects X, Y, Z and me in a negative way, right?”

Agent H1 says:

As a friend, you are one of the only people that might be able to deliver the information. Think of the consequences if you do not. If you had spinach in your teeth, wouldn’t you want your friend to tell you? When you enter into the conversation the person must know (from your non verbal communication, word choice and tone of voice) that you are doing this in honor of them. Think of how your friend needs to hear information, how he/she processes information and then customize your message and style based on their need. Be present and in the moment when you talk so that you can respond (almost dance with) your friend in the conversation. Sometimes having her lead other times with you leading.


Some other agents and readers out there may have great suggestion as well…

What would you do if you were BJ? — please comment below!

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