Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

When an Employee Thinks They’re Awesome, but You Don’t

Dear Crucial Skills,

As a manager, how can I prepare to have a Crucial Conversation about someone’s performance, especially when that person feels they are doing brilliant work and I think differently?

Prepping for Performance Review

Dear Prepping,

Thank you for sharing this—it’s a concern I hear quite a bit. It’s so common that years ago we made a silly video that depicts this common gap between manager and employee about performance. You might enjoy “The Awkward Performance Review.” 🙂

Here are a few ideas to consider.

Get the expectation right. This is where many performance gaps begin. The boss and employee have a conversation about an assignment, role, or result, and then they both walk away with completely different understanding of what’s expected.

Your job as the manager is to be so specific that there is no room for misinterpretation. When you ask your employee to complete a task or take on a new role, be behaviorally specific. Don’t leave it up to chance. Don’t tell them to “work hard,” define it for them with a behaviorally specific expectation. Do you want them in the office by 9:00 a.m.? Do you expect their webcam on in every meeting? Do you want them calling ten new contacts each day? Whatever it is, leave no space between what you intend and what they understand.

Have the right conversation. The reason you are feeling stuck is no longer about project A or task B. It’s a larger issue that has resulted from a pattern. So, you need to raise the level of conversation. As you talked with them, don’t get mired in one specific instance. Instead, be clear that you want to discuss this topic: you and I see your level of performance differently.

Check your assumptions. The stories you tell yourself about this person are a better predictor of your approach than anything else. If you go in thinking they are entitled or lazy or incompetent or stupid or anything similar, you’ll likely treat them with condescension and disdain. Consider these questions: What have you done as their boss that might have contributed to their performance? What else might be contributing to their behavior?

Start with facts. This is the best structure I know of for discussing the gap on expectations: start with facts, then share your interpretation of the facts, then ask how they see it.

  • Facts: What have you observed?
  • Story: What have you concluded from your observations?
  • Ask: How do they see it?

Prepare for multiple outcomes. When I teach people these interpersonal skills, I NEVER guarantee anything. Why? Because you aren’t working with robots. You don’t say a few magic words and it all gets fixed. People have thoughts, opinions, emotions, so be ready for a variety of responses and consider your next step for each one:

  • They leave—it’s true. Some people may just not want the feedback and they’ll head elsewhere so people can tell them what they want to hear.
  • They quit… and stay. This would be the worst case.
  • They change… and so do you.

If you do it right on your end, it’s much more likely that you’ll get to a dialogue that helps you both become better.


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6 thoughts on “When an Employee Thinks They’re Awesome, but You Don’t”

  1. georgewilhelmsen

    I had one of these. He was a friend’s cousin.

    He would publicly speak in disparaging terms about our site engineering director, basically saying he could do a better job.

    Then he hurt his knee, so he had to have his leg up on his desk for months.

    The biggest problem was he wasn’t producing, and the rest of the team saw it. I had assigned him a product to work on, and it never finished. He also cut out early when I asked him not to, and then refused to come back in to finish.

    The review was interesting. I laid out the facts, he denied them, and felt he had done great work. He spent 20 minutes telling me this. I asked for some time, and responded to each of his concerns.

    I offered to help, but he moved to another company. And our production numbers only improved after he left.

  2. Sharon

    It’s also possible that the manager does not have all the relevant information. There are many different types of employees — some toot their own horns and cc the manager on everything to make sure the manager knows everything they’re doing, while some quietly handle business and only involve the manager for problems. It is often easy to assume those in the latter category are not doing as much work or as good a job as those in the former category. So, I would encourage the manager to ask around first to find out if perhaps the employee is doing a better job than the manager thinks.

    1. Gary

      +1 Sharon

      The article and video seem to make an assumption that employee *isn’t* awesome. I have often seen the opposite — there’s an awesome employee but a bad manager.

      This has even happened to me. I tried to pivot to “Start with the Facts,” and the supervisor said “I have no specific facts — these are simply my general impressions” and the supervisor felt that was perfectly all right to say.

      To give that supervisor the benefit of the doubt, the organization to which we both belonged at the time was very stingy when it came to giving employees and supervisors paid time for completing the evaluation process.

      But, still…

  3. Liz

    I would rethink that video. Describing the only overweight person in the video as having a “sloppy appearance” is tone deaf.

    1. Jeff

      Perhaps I missed it but I didn’t hear a word said about Matt’s weight; rather, his presentation: his unkept look, unshaven face, mop of hair, his sloppy, wrinkled shirt (as contrasted by the crisp shirt and tie of his breakroom interlocutor), and loose tie are what appeared to me as defining his “sloppy appearance.”

      1. MiMi

        I agree Jeff. Nothing was mentioned about his weight, and in fact I didn’t even see his weight as Liz did. All I heard was how employees and managers are taking two different takes on a conversation. Which is helpful to me, as now I have the tools to utilize so we are on the same path.

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