The Power of Constructive Confrontation

Working with an employee to turn around poor performance is one of the most difficult—and potentially rewarding—challenges a leader can encounter.

With perseverance, patience, and skillful coaching, leaders can motivate positive action and help the employee make the desired change. A truly effective performance coach knows how to engage in constructive confrontation and substantially increase the likelihood of a positive outcome.

Such a leader knows that destructive confrontation yields little or no action and often invites a negative reaction.

As the coach, it is up to you to set the stage. Practice these interpersonal and presentational communication skills to make your delivery of constructive feedback easier and more effective for your employees:

1. Be prepared. Gather facts and specific examples that demonstrate the area of concern before you meet with the employee. If appropriate, bring documentation you can review with the employee to help increase their understanding of the situation.

2. Create the right atmosphere. Start by speaking confidently. Be self-assured (not arrogant), use a positive tone, and maintain consistent eye contact throughout the conversation. Remember to monitor your nonverbal signals like body language, facial expressions, and tone. Words are important, but studies have shown that when we verbalize feelings or attitudes, the messages sent through nonverbal cues can override the intentions of our words. (Mehrabian, Albert, Silent Messages, 1981)

3. Acknowledge the employee’s past good performance. An employee who is recognized for the positive contribution he or she is making, or has made in the past, will be more open to discuss opportunities for improvement. Be sincere in your observations.

Avoid lecturing4. Avoid lecturing. This meeting is an opportunity to point out areas of poor performance, but it must be a two-way conversation. Involve the employee in the process. Provide them with specific examples of his or her “poor” performance and review any documents in an objective manner.

Ask open-ended questions to avoid yes or no answers, gain clarity, and generate discussion. You could ask, “What’s going on that’s affecting your work?” Strive for a clear understanding of the situation and what the employee needs to do differently to improve.

5. Allow the employee enough time to come up with possible solutions. It’s often easier to gain commitment from an employee to change his or her behavior if they are involved in generating the solution. Discuss your specific objectives and ask for the employee’s input on how he or she will meet them.

For example, “What ideas do you have for turning your performance around?” Listen and rephrase the employee’s statements and suggestions. Saying things like, “What I hear you saying is _______,” helps your employees know that you care and are listening. Work with the employee to create solutions that are actionable and add your ideas to support the desired performance improvement.

6. Keep the conversation on track. If the employee tries to sidetrack an issue, acknowledge his or her comment, but redirect the discussion back to the target topic. If an employee gets emotional, apply active listening skills and acknowledge his or her feelings.

Give them time to express those feelings and show your empathy for their position, but remain focused on the topic. If the employee becomes disrespectful or angry, stop the behavior immediately. Take a break or stop the meeting if needed and let the employee know the meeting will continue when he or she can remain composed.

7. Before ending the conversation, be sure to explain disciplinary procedures if they are unable to improve the situation. In a straightforward way, summarize the agreements made and end the meeting with a commitment. “From this point forward, I can expect you to _______.” Then, schedule the next meeting date with the employee to discuss the progress they have made.

Remember both you and the employee want to succeed in this situation. Don’t overlook positive performance and conclude the meeting on a positive note. Offer sincere encouragement, for example, “I still believe you can succeed in this position because I’ve seen your performance in the past. You just need to meet the specific goals we’ve discussed. I know you can do it.”

With a little perseverance, patience, and skillful constructive confrontation, a leader can coach any employee through the most difficult challenges to future success.

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About the Author

Polly Scott

Polly is an Assistant Vice President for CMOE and specializes in organizational management and executive coaching. Polly also has years of experience in sales and marketing, strategic leadership, leadership principles and execution. She is dedicated to listening and understanding the goals of clients.