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6 Steps to Handling Difficult Performance Discussion

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

I am so sick and tired of dealing with this employee. If you are a manager, you have likely expressed some version of this thought before. When I talk with small business owners, they frequently state that managing people is the most challenging part of their job. Finding the balance between being empathic and getting things done is the goal, but it tends to be elusive.

This is especially the case when managing people is one of many roles you must play within your organization. If you have been struggling to figure out how to start a difficult performance discussion with an employee, this article will provide you with six steps that will help you to address performance issues while still maintaining a good relationship with your employee.

Manager having discussion with employee

6-Step Process to Performance Discussions

By following these steps, you can have productive and constructive performance discussions that lead to positive outcomes for your employees and your organization.

Step 1: Check for understanding of the task

When you start the performance discussion, make sure that you and your employee have a clear and shared understanding of the task or project that the employee is struggling with. You can do this by asking open-ended questions, such as:

- What was the goal of this task/project?

- What were the main deliverables and deadlines?

- How did you approach this task/project?

- What challenges did you face?

By checking for understanding of the task, you can avoid misunderstandings, clarify expectations, and identify any gaps in knowledge or skills that may have affected the performance.

Step 2: Discuss the difference between expectations and performance.

The next step is to discuss the difference between your expectations and the actual performance of your employee. You can do this by providing specific, factual, and objective feedback, such as:

- I expected you to complete this task/project by this date, but you missed the deadline by two weeks.

- I expected you to produce high-quality work that meets the standards of our organization, but I found several things that needed to be corrected in your work.

- I expected you to communicate effectively with your team members and stakeholders, but I received complaints that you could have been more responsive and friendly.

By discussing the difference between expectations and performance, you can help your employee understand where they fell short, how their performance impacted the team and the organization, and what they need to do differently.

Step 3: Ask what support they need.

After discussing the performance gap, it is important to ask your employees what support they need from you or others to improve their performance. You can do this by asking open-ended questions, such as:

- What challenges or barriers did you face while working on this task/project?

- What resources or tools do you need to perform better?

- How can I support you in achieving your goals?

By asking what support they need, you can show your employee that you care about their success, are willing to help them overcome their difficulties, and are open to their feedback and suggestions.

Step 4: Verify expectations are realistic.

As you discuss the support and actions needed for improvement, you should verify expectations are realistic and attainable. You can do this by asking the employee

-Based on this conversation, what is realistic for you to accomplish?

-If you were in charge, what would you set as the expectation?

-Is there any reason you would be unable to meet this goal?

By asking these questions, you will better understand the employee’s belief in being able to complete the task at hand. With this information, determine if the expectations are realistic, and if not, adjust so the goal is achievable.

Step 5: Request commitment from the employee.

The next step is to request a commitment from your employee to improve their performance and meet your expectations. You can do this by asking them to set specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals for themselves, such as:

- I will complete this task/project by this date.

- I will improve my work quality by following these standards and guidelines.

- I will communicate more effectively with my team members and stakeholders by using these methods and channels.

By requesting commitment from your employee, you can help them take ownership of their performance, motivate them to act, and hold them accountable for their results.

Step 6: Establish a follow-up plan.

The final step is establishing a follow-up plan with your employee to monitor their progress and provide ongoing feedback and support. You can do this by scheduling regular check-ins, reviews, or meetings with them, such as:

- Let's meet weekly to discuss your status and challenges on this task/project.

- Let's review your work quality and feedback monthly to see how you improve.

- Let's meet quarterly to evaluate your performance and goals.

By establishing a follow-up plan, you can ensure that your employee stays on track, receives timely and constructive feedback, and gets the support they need to succeed.


In summary, having difficult performance discussions with your employees can be daunting, but it can also be an opportunity to help them grow and improve. By following these six steps, you can have effective and respectful performance discussions that lead to positive outcomes for your employees and your organization:

- Check for understanding of the task

- Discuss the difference between expectations and performance

- Ask what support they need

- Verify expectations are realistic

- Request commitment from the employee

- Establish a follow-up plan


Thank you for reading this blog

Executive Coach Dorian Cunion

Dorian Cunion is an Executive Coach and Business Consultant with Your Path Coaching and Consulting. He is a former retail executive with over 20 years of experience in the retail industry. He is a Co-Active coach who focuses on helping professionals, and small business owners overcome insecurities, knowledge gaps, and lack of direction. He does this by assisting clients to tap into their values, recognize their strengths, and develop actionable strategies for growth.

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