How to Navigate Tricky Conversations with Underperforming Employees

How to Navigate Tricky Conversations with Underperforming Employees


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As the business owner or manager in a small business, one of the challenges you may face is having difficult conversations with underperforming employees. This can be one of the most stressful parts of your role in the company.

Handling these situations in a way that is respectful, constructive, and effective is crucial for the growth and success of both the employee and the organisation. In this article, we will provide you with valuable tips to help you navigate these conversations and feedback with confidence and compassion.

Prepare for the Conversation

Before engaging in a difficult conversation with an underperforming employee, it’s important to take the time to prepare. This involves:

  • Choosing the right time, place, and tone for the discussion.
  • Ensure there are no interruptions or distractions that may hinder effective communication.
  • It’s also essential to approach the conversation with a positive and supportive tone, showing respect and appreciation for your employee, while being honest and direct about the issue at hand.

SBI = Situation, Behaviour, Impact

One effective approach to structuring your feedback is using the SBI model, which stands for Situation, Behaviour, and Impact.

  1. Clearly define the specific situation.
  2. Describe the observed behaviour.
  3. Explain the impact it has on the individual and the team.
  4. Providing specific examples and evidence of the problem will help the employee understand the issue and its consequences.

Listen and Empathise

During the conversation and feedback session, it’s crucial to actively listen and empathise with the employee.

  1. Give them the space and time to express their thoughts, feelings, and perspectives on the matter.
  2. Acknowledge their emotions and concerns, demonstrating that you understand and care about them as a person.
  3. Avoid interrupting, judging, or blaming them, and instead, focus on the facts and finding solutions.
  4. Utilise active listening skills such as paraphrasing, summarising, and asking open-ended questions to demonstrate your interest and engagement.

These four actions from you will help create an atmosphere of trust and collaboration, allowing your employee to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas.

It’s also important to keep an open mind and understand the wider context and factors that may be impacting your employee’s performance. Recognise that work is not the only aspect of their life, and there may be external challenges affecting their work. While poor performance still needs to be addressed, approach it patiently and empathetically, ensuring that the necessary support is offered.

Collaborate and Agree on Next Steps

After listening and empathising with the employee, it’s essential to collaborate and agree on the next steps and actions. Involve the employee in the process of finding solutions and setting goals for improvement. Empower them to take ownership and responsibility for their performance while offering your support and guidance along the way.


Agree on specific and measurable outcomes and indicators of success, as well as the timeline and frequency of follow-up and feedback.

Use the SMART model to define and document the action plan and expectations:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

This will ensure clarity and accountability for both parties involved.

Keep Talking: Follow Up and Monitor Progress

The last step in handling difficult conversations and feedback with underperforming employees is to follow up and monitor their progress and results.

  • Check in often: Regularly check in with them, provide ongoing feedback and recognition, and track and measure their performance against the agreed goals and standards.
  • Lead with the wins: Celebrate their achievements and improvements.
  • Discuss any issues: Address any challenges or setbacks that may arise.
  • Flex: Be flexible and willing to adjust and revise the action plan and expectations as needed, based on feedback and data.

The PDCA model (Plan, Do, Check, Act) can be a valuable tool to evaluate and improve the performance cycle.

Mindset: Learn and Grow from the Experience

Finally, as the leader, it’s important to learn and grow from the experience of having difficult conversations and feedback with underperforming employees.

Your mindset and actions:

  • Reflect on what went well and what could be improved in your communication and feedback skills.
  • Seek feedback from others on your leadership style and impact to continuously develop and refine your approach.

Your employee’s mindset and actions:

  • Encourage the employee to learn and grow from the feedback and the action plan as well.
  • Provide them with opportunities and resources to develop their skills and potential, showing that you are invested in their growth and success.


Having difficult conversations and providing feedback to underperforming employees is a necessary part of leadership. By following the tips outlined in this article, you can navigate these conversations with confidence and compassion.

Remember to prepare for the conversation, listen and empathise with the employee, collaborate and agree on the next steps, follow up and monitor progress, and continuously learn and grow from the experience. By doing so, you can foster a culture of growth and development within your team, leading to improved performance and success for all.

author avatar
Helen Sanders Managing Director and Chief People Partner
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