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It’s the time of the year when you feel like Santa Claus. You can sit down and let your team members know how much you appreciate them. Hopefully, those encouraging words come with a nice bonus and a good-looking salary raise to make it even better. 

Except, that is not the whole picture, right?

You also have tough performance conversations. The ones with the direct reports which had underperformed. And those are not easy to have, my friend.

Don’t worry. I have your back. 

First, avoid going down these two paths.

Most managers try their best to have these difficult conversations in the best way possible. However, I have seen two things that make these moments even harder.

One, the manager is too vague and fails to communicate precisely how they underperformed to the employee.

They don’t bring data and facts to the conversation. They don’t talk straight, and they wash out the possible consequences. The employee often feels the manager’s evaluation is biased and subjective and that there is no clear action plan moving forward. 

Two, the manager is too straight-to-the-point, approaches the conversation as if it was a checklist, and leaves no room to talk.

The employee feels no empathy whatsoever. They feel isolated and afraid to ask for help. They think they are alone in figuring out how to turn the page from now on. 

The two options break the relationship with your team members. That is why I want to show you how to approach these conversations with a key goal: to build trust between you and your direct report.

Second, learn the recipe

This 1:1 structure comes from Stephen Covey and his book The Speed of Trust. It is an excellent structure to ensure you manage those situations with mind and heart in the right place. 

Listen First + Talk Straight + Demonstrate respect + Practice accountability + Keep commitments.

Whoa, that’s a lot! Let me help you dissect each step:

Third, learn the goal behind each step.

Each step has a goal behind it, and the order is also relevant to ensure that the conversation encourages trust between you two. 

1. Listen first: allow the person to explain themselves by saying, “My intent is to first understand your point of view, then explain my own”

2. Talk Straight: be honest about the situation and tell people what is happening. Use “Here’s how I see the situation” to introduce the facts and data about your team member’s performance.

3. Demonstrate respect: just because your direct report underperformed does not mean you cannot recognize them for what they did right. It is time to include some tokens of appreciation and show kindness.

4. Practice Accountability: now introduce the expectations you have for them. Make sure to be clear and concise, and what would be the consequences for not delivering what’s expected. Let your team members outline what you can expect from them and how you will track the progress. 

5. Keep commitments: say how you can help your direct reports achieve success.

Fourth, now let's put it all together.

Here’s how the conversation should go, according to Covey. Of course, make sure you also follow your company’s guidelines if you receive them. Some companies advise that managers go straight to providing the rating. That is fine as long as you leave room for your direct reports to speak their minds.

Listen First

“Hi, we are here to discuss your performance for the year.

My intent is to first understand how you would evaluate yourself against your goals, then explain my point of view. 

After your team members have expressed their thoughts, move to the facts. 

If your team members had completed a self-evaluation, this would be the moment to let them explain further.

Talk Straight 

Here’s how I see your performance for the year.

Your goals were A, B, and C, and you didn’t achieve the expected results due to X, Y, and Z. We talked on DATE about your performance and took THESE actions to help you. However, you kept receiving complaints from your clients and stakeholders which caused THESE negative impacts on the business.

Because of the facts mentioned before, your performance for this year was rated as below expectations. And receiving this rating means you are not eligible for a salary raise or performance bonus.

Demonstrate respect

I know this is difficult news to receive, but I want you to know that you can turn the page, as you have demonstrated in this and this projects. 

Practice accountability

Given this outcome, I want to focus on how you will improve. Let’s come up with a plan to turn things around. The expectations for your role are this and this, and I would like to hear your thoughts about how you can achieve those results, and how I can help you get there. 

Keep commitments

I promise to help you in this way. Whether you are ready now or if you need some time to process and then come back with some suggestions, know that I will be prepared to help you succeed. 

Final thoughts

I know that you are in charge of delivering the rating and, possibly, following a performance process outlined by your HR department. Remember that you can do that and yet, have a kind, assertive conversation with your direct report. I would like to leave you with a quote by Stephen Covey to inspire you through this challenging conversation:

“Leadership is communicating people’s worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it themselves.”

To your success,


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