In my last blog, I discussed the importance of recognition. While recognition is critical to engage employees, it is also necessary to remember that all types of performance need to be addressed, which includes unsatisfactory performance. Today, I want to talk about the importance of managers having tough conversations and making difficult decisions. When it comes to positive and productive company culture, poor performers, especially those who do not support the company’s values and who are not good team players, cannot be tolerated. I often meet managers in organizations that allow these people to stick around because they find it easier to keep a mediocre performer than address the issue.

Managers often justify allowing poor performers to stick around because of the Union, complicated HR practices, or a lack of owner support. However, the real reasons are more about a manager’s close relationships with staff, their lack of comfort with managing others, and most importantly, an unwillingness to have challenging conversations and make tough decisions. When there is a lack of accountability, the mindset and morale of the whole team suffer and they ultimately underperform. It is also a primary reason some of your best employees decide to leave. Well-known speaker Peter Bromberg says, “When we avoid difficult conversations, we trade short-term discomfort for long-term dysfunction.”


Your staff craves accountability. Gallup’s 2017 Millennial Report revealed that nearly 6 in 10 millennials who report that their manager holds them accountable at work are engaged, and that same 6 in 10 plan to stay at their current organization for at least another year. So, let’s stop the dysfunction by no longer avoiding challenging conversations.

Here are a few ideas to remember as you prepare for a difficult conversation:

  1. Determine Whether the Conversation is Necessary: Take the advice of Larry Boyer of Success Rockets, LLC: “If you need to have a conversation that is difficult for you, start with asking yourself why you really need to have the conversation. Is it more difficult having the conversation or keeping the status quo? You have the status quo now, so why bother? When you can answer that question for yourself, you may find the conversation is not as difficult as you fear.”
  2. Keep It Confidential and Conversational: Choose a setting that is private and allows for two-way interaction. Ensure this conversation can take place face-to-face, if possible, or over a video conference, at the very least. Remote work is becoming much more common, but these tough talks need to be real discussions, not via email.
  3. Have Someone Else Present: Bring a witness if the conversation is going to be particularly difficult. A witness can help defuse tensions and can be helpful if the employee challenges the conversation at a future date.
  4. Start with the Positives: Begin your conversation by reinforcing the individual’s values and strengths to the team or company. Remember that these conversations are meant to provide the employee with an understanding of how their current performance is not cutting it and provide them an opportunity to improve.
  5. Offer Assistance: Ask the employee about areas of opportunity for improvement and where they need help. Laurie Sudbrink of Unlimited Coaching Solutions explains: “No one likes to be confronted. Most appreciate being helped. When engaging in a conversation to help, our intent will come from a better place.”
  6. Explain How to Improve: Be clear about what you want to see improved. Focus on specific behaviors. Bill Gardner from Noetic Outcomes Consulting, LLC suggests, “Confront behavior, not your assessment of their behavior…Ask, ‘What is the evidence for my inference?’ and confront on that behavior.”
  7. Make a Plan: Ensure there is a clear plan for improvement that can be agreed-upon. Have an understood consequence or result of poor performance. Research suggests that feedback without consequences is not effective—when feedback was used alone, it only produced consistent improvements in performance 28% of the time.
  8. Use Documentation: Document the conversation by using proper paperwork. Recording the conversation will be especially important if the employee does not improve their performance and needs to be let go.
  9. Be Respectful: As frustrating as it can be to deal with poor performance, leaders must maintain a professional and respectful approach when dealing with employees. Always be respectful, yet firm. As Napoleon Bonaparte famously stated, “Firmness works better when employed with courtesy and manner.”

When there are too many tough conversations, managers must be willing to let a person go. The reality is, some employees are just better suited to be customers–especially those who do not interact well with their peers or do not uphold the company’s values.

When the employee is not improving their performance, behaviors, or attitude, despite being given an opportunity to develop, it is time to consider letting them go.

When it is time to let someone go, remember the rules we just mentioned. Also, you need to be organized with a final paycheck, a list of equipment to be collected, and IT teams ready to remove computer access. I recommend doing any termination meetings at the end of the day when other employees are gone. But, don’t be afraid to talk about the reasons for termination with the other employees; remember to speak respectfully of the terminated employee and explain the dismissal regarding the performance and facts, not opinions or personalities.

Letting people go is never easy. One of my favorite quotes is by former CEO of GE, Jack Welch. He reminds us of our responsibilities as a leader. He said, “I was a gardener providing water and nourishment to our top people. Of course, I had to pull a few weeds too.” Remember, this is your responsibility too. Nurturing your team is critical to their success, but so is removing those who are not contributing or are destructive. Stop avoiding and start fostering accountability with your team.

Thanks for reading. Don’t forget to check out my book, Culture Hacker, available online. Also check out Season 2 of the Culture Hacker Podcast, available on SoundCloud and iTunes.