Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

What to Do When You and Your Employee Disagree about Their Performance

Dear Crucial Skills,

A member of the team I lead is convinced he’s an excellent worker, top performer, and unfairly overlooked for a promotion. The problem is none of that is true, but he refuses to accept this. He sometimes does great work but is inconsistent. He’s also often nowhere to be found, for hours at a time. How do I hold him accountable when his self-perception is so wildly different from reality? I ask all the right questions, but we still go in circles when we talk with me pointing out weaknesses and him claiming perfection.

Perception Gap

Dear Perception Gap,

The mistake you’re making is that you’re coming into your Crucial Conversation unprepared. You’re coming in with stories, conclusions, and judgments but little or no fact. So is he. If the conversation sounds like…

Him: “I’m an excellent worker, a top performer and deserve a promotion!”

You: “I agree that you do good work sometimes, but you’re inconsistent and often disappear.”

Him: “No, I don’t! I’m always available and keep all my commitments!”

You: “Actually, you don’t.”

… then you’re stuck in the “competing conclusions” trap. The only way to break this argument over vague generalities is to back up and start over. This time, with facts.

Thirty years ago, when Crucial Learning was young, Chris (not his real name), one of my employees, asked to have a private meeting. My chest tightened as I could tell he wasn’t happy with me about something. When I closed the door and we both sat down, Chris looked at me sternly and said, “Joseph, no one here likes working with you. You’re arrogant and argumentative.”

I was thunderstruck. My initial inclination was to say, “No, I’m not!” But even in my defensive dizziness I realized that would have been argumentative. So, I bit my lip, took a deep breath, and scrambled for where to go next.

I eventually came to see that Chris was right. But in the moment, I was not only defensive, I was mystified. It was easy to reject what he was saying because he gave me no evidence to support it. That enabled me to tell myself a story about him that allowed me to dismiss everything he was saying: “Chris doesn’t like taking orders from someone younger than him. This is about his ego!”

My self-protective story evaporated when I stumbled on a productive response. “Chris, if you see me as arrogant and argumentative, I must be doing something to deserve that judgment. Can you give me some examples?”

He nodded. That was when I noticed the green spiral-bound notebook sitting in front of him. He opened it and began citing examples—complete with dates, topics, and participants—of when I had cut people off in meetings, shaken my head before they had made their points, failed to ask questions to clarify others’ perspectives, and a host of other offenses. The more he read, the more I melted into his point of view.

Gathering the facts is the homework required for an effective Crucial Conversation. Our problem is that our brain is an efficiency optimizer. Given that storing minute details is resource intensive, our brain focuses on retaining conclusions and judgments but does a lesser job of holding the facts that support our judgments. For example, I go to a restaurant, I’m made to wait 25 minutes past my reservation time. The maître de doesn’t seat me until I point out the delay. Two of the wine glasses on the table have spots and there is food debris from previous diners. The waiter doesn’t acknowledge my table for twenty minutes, gets four of our six orders wrong, doesn’t make eye contact, delivers food that is cold, etc., etc. Six months later someone asks me if I like the restaurant. I can remember that I didn’t like the place, but I can’t recall most or all of the specific observations that contributed to my judgment.

The same is true of our judgments of people in the workplace. We’ll make an observation or two, draw a conclusion, then retain the conclusion but little of its basis. “I just don’t trust her, it’s just a gut feeling!” No, it isn’t. It’s a conclusion based on lost information. And you’ll never know if the conclusion is right, wrong, or something in between until you retrieve and interrogate the facts you used to draw it.

Crucial Conversations require both diligence and humility. We must be diligent in recovering the facts that supported our judgment, and we must be humble enough to acknowledge their paucity if our evidence is light.

The only hope of progress with your team member will be moving the conversation to a mutual exploration of concrete history rather than competing conclusions.


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3 thoughts on “What to Do When You and Your Employee Disagree about Their Performance”

  1. georgewilhelmsen

    First off, congrats on not falling into the trap of I’m perfect and you’re not.

    Second, I had the same issue with an employee. I tried being subtle, just posting the time each employee spent on the phone in a month (in this case, it was in excess of 60 hours for this employee. The bar chart was posted without names. It was an engineering organization, so while some communication was warranted, 60 hours was around 3 times warranted in a month.

    No effect.

    So I documented. And Documented, and DOCUMENTED. This employee went on an improvement plan. And he eventually left our organization.

    During this time, I had the opportunity to attend an industry supervisor training session. Part of the session was to get help from your peers on an equipment issue and a personnel issue. I brought this employee’s behavior as my issue.

    I got some good suggestions.

    At the end of the presentation (and note, I hadn’t use the employee’s name, I made one up), one of the supervisors in the group came up to me and said “Is that “the employees name?” I said no, and asked why he thought it was.

    Turns out, this was that same employee’s previous manager, who had left his company when the manager held him accountable. It was the same pattern.

    In this case, it was the employee who had the problem, rather than the supervisor. I’m not saying I never had to have a conversation like you – in fact I did several times in my career. Check and adjust. Move on, get better.

    1. john yates

      Respectfully, yes I know that whenever someone starts a conversation with “Respectfully” it is sometimes through a bias filter. As in, “I see your point but you have a conditioned response.”

      So respectively, many organizations structure from the top down. What is in the job description places a person at a disadvantage from the start as each person has dynamic skills and interests. But top down is sometimes a rock wall. They may be underutilized or unqualified to any one description, pigeon holed to fail due to being held back, held to a bar that isn’t within their skill set.

      Job descriptions that promote dynamic workflow may contribute to increased job performance and corporate health.

      My question is why was the engineer on the phone longer than others?

  2. Sew Fong

    Thanks for reminding me that I am normal. I always retain the judgement/conclusion and forget the facts. My brain is on power savings mode. If this conversation is important enough for me, I need to take the effort to recall the facts. If I cannot remember the facts, I need to be truthful about that as that creates trust.

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