Over the course of 37 years working in engineering and tech leadership roles, Pete Devenyi has conducted some challenging conversations with employees whose work performance needed improvement. One that comes to mind was a strong technical employee who was an unpleasant teammate, chewing out coworkers when he was upset, he said.
“I said, ‘Look, you’re one of the smartest guys on the team. You’re incredibly well respected for your technical capabilities, but you’re getting yourself into a really, really difficult position, and I’m having people come to me complaining that they don’t want to work with you anymore because of the way you’re treating them,’” said Devenyi, author of Decoding Your STEM Career.
That conversation opened the employee’s eyes about his behavior and how he needed to treat his colleagues better. After initial improvement, some negative behaviors started back up. Again, Devenyi had to point out how the employee’s workplace conduct was affecting the team.
“As long as I had these conversations honestly and directly, but even then, couching it a little bit with respect to what they’ve done well, the response invariably was, ‘I honestly didn’t realize I was doing that,’ and there was a conscious effort to improve,” Devenyi said.
11 Ways to Improve Employee Work Performance
- Create a culture where people are receptive to feedback.
- Build trust with direct reports
- Set regular, meaningful check-ins.
- Document the positives and challenges.
- Be honest and direct.
- Say something positive when giving constructive feedback too.
- Make performance discussions a conversation with the team member.
- Help employees prioritize tasks during times of stress.
- Identify projects that align with employees’ interests and talents.
- Consider if other teams are a better fit.
- Don’t let it get to the PIP stage.
When having difficult conversations about work performance issues, Devenyi stressed the importance of earning the respect of his direct reports and delivering feedback with a combination of both constructive and positive comments.
“These are all human beings with emotions and feelings, and you can’t just give criticism, even if it’s with the best intentions and constructively delivered, without giving some positive feedback as well,” he said.
Built In spoke with tech leaders about different approaches that managers can take to help employees improve their work performance.
Tips for Improving Employee Work Performance
Create a Culture Where People are Receptive to Feedback
At Rocketlane, a customer onboarding platform, new employees are made aware right away that they’ll need to be receptive to getting frequent feedback while working at the company.
“We are the kind of team where very early we tell people the reason we picked them is that we’ve seen that they have that growth mindset in them and that they’re going to be very open about feedback,” said Sri Ganesan, CEO and co-founder of Rocketlane. “We expect them to be open about feedback with us as well.”
By setting the expectation that leaders will give consistent feedback, employees are more prepared to receive it and learn how they can improve their work performance.
“I think the idea should be how do we help the team member not get defensive about their performance. Instead, how do we make it a constructive conversation where they look at it as ‘Hey, here is feedback for me to improve,’” Ganesan said.
Build Trust with Direct Reports
Managers should focus on building strong relationships with their direct report from day one and practice having open conversations. It’s important to do so even when things are going well, rather than waiting until there’s an issue to discuss.
“You have to build that relationship before you reach that point, as opposed to once you’ve reached that point, and then you try to give the advice,” Devenyi said. “I think it’s really difficult to give advice that is going to be accepted if you haven’t built a strong relationship with your employees to start with that has at least given you the opportunity to earn the respect of your employees — and hopefully it’s somewhat of a mutual respect.”
Set Regular, Meaningful Check-Ins
The engineering team at Rocketlane has daily standups where people have a forum to share what obstacles they might be facing in their work. Fridays are demo days, where employees have a chance to show what they’ve accomplished during the week. It’s during the Friday demos that performance issues are often identified, Ganesan said.
“What ends up happening during weekly check-ins is an update on the work. Tell me where you are on all of your work and often how you feel about it gets overlooked.”
Managers should be sure that their check-ins with their employees aren’t just about going through checklists. They should make an effort to get to know their direct reports’ interests and motivations, said Danielle Boris, founder and CEO at Sandbox, a software platform that aligns people’s skills and interests with their company’s project needs.
“What ends up happening during weekly check-ins is an update on the work. Tell me where you are on all of your work and often how you feel about it gets overlooked,” Boris said. “It’s no one’s fault. It’s usually because managers have a lot of pressure from leadership, ‘Where’s this project that needs to be on time? It needs to be on budget.’ And then that pressure gets trickled down.”
Document. Document. Document.
Devenyi suggests that managers create a spreadsheet at the beginning of the year to keep track of all the positives and negatives occurring with their direct reports’ work.
“It really is a question of documenting regularly the good things and the bad things, or the misses, that an employee has done throughout the year,” he said. “Then when I was going into either a performance review or a difficult conversation, I would review that list of over the last 12 months — what are the issues, what are all the positives, accomplishments, that they’ve achieved — and make sure that I have all of those examples at the tip of my tongue.”
If a work performance improvement conversation has to happen, the manager will then be able to provide specific data and examples to direct the employee on ways to improve.
Be Honest and Direct
Be clear, open and honest about where an employee is falling short. Even if it’s uncomfortable to provide criticism, beating around the bush isn’t constructive and can prevent the employee from having clarity on how they can do better.
“When I tried to provide constructive criticism, I would also share stories of where I had a similar issue myself and what I did to actually get out of it, so they don’t feel like they’re failing in some way, but rather it’s a natural part of the learning process,” Devenyi said.
Say Something Positive Too
Many people don’t enjoy getting feedback about where they’re falling short, so calling out positives is important too. Dishing out praise also signals to direct reports what they should continue to do.
“It’s about lowering their guard first about ‘Hey, here’s things that we’re all doing well, and here’s what we love about how you’re doing things’,” Ganesan said. Ultimately, the focus is on how this feedback will help them in their career and that makes it “easier for them to digest.”
Make It a Conversation. Ask the Employee For Their Thoughts.
Work performance conversations should be a dialogue, not just the manager doing all the talking. The employee should have a chance to respond to the feedback to make sure they understand the issues.
“Everyone needs to help each other grow,” Ganesan said. “That’s the attitude in the company, which means we can be pretty direct about, ‘Hey, here’s a mistake that we see you doing. Do you agree it’s a mistake, and can we change something about it?’”
Managers will often identify two ways for how the employee can step up and ask them if they agree, which gives the employee an opportunity to offer their perspective on the situation, Ganesan said.
“If your manager said you just need to do better, that’s not really clear, and then you as the employee should be empowered to say, ‘Thank you. How can I do better? Please give me some specifics,’” Boris said.
“I think having that kind of self autonomy and self reflection skills, it makes the whole organization work to its best.”
Managers should offer specific examples of where the employee is falling short and potential suggestions for steps to improve. Then they should invite the employee to respond, ask questions and offer their own ideas for improvement.
“I think the first thing that an employee has to do is really understand what the manager is saying. I think there’s an opportunity for a two-way dialogue to take place when that happens,” Devenyi said. “For the employee, you should not just blindly accept the commentary, that constructive criticism, whatever it is, if you really don’t know what your manager means, if you don’t understand why they’ve come to that conclusion, if they don’t have any concrete recommendations as to what you should do.”
At technology consultancy, Reaktor, most employees don’t have a manager. The company offers mentorship for new employees and peer-to-peer development discussions where employees can request meetings with colleagues at any time about how to improve their work performance.
“I think having that kind of self autonomy and self reflection skills, it makes the whole organization work to its best,” said Aini Leppäkorpi, talent growth lead at Reaktor.
Employees take their work performance seriously, even without reporting to a manager, and they’re often asking questions about how they can do better or if there are other ways they could put their skills to use at the company, Leppäkorpi said.
Identify Projects That Align With Employees’ Interests and Talents
Recently, a manager told Boris that they were going to take a team member who was underperforming out to lunch for a sincere conversation about how they need to do better.
“I challenged them on that and I said, ‘What is this person doing every day? Does that person like those tasks?’” Boris said. “They really weren’t sure if that person was actually interested in the work. Chances are, unless you as the manager make a conscious effort to shift their work to something that inspires them, nothing’s going to change, and it’s not because this employee is bad or underperforming. It’s because work should inspire us, and no matter who you are, if you’re not inspired by your work, you’re not going to want to do it.”
Rather than just assigning work to someone because they know how to do it, Sandbox encourages companies to learn what work their employees enjoy and allow them to work on tasks that excite them whenever possible. That often leads to better work performance, Boris said.
Help Employees Prioritize Tasks During Times of Stress
Sometimes an employee might be underperforming due to an external circumstance. Managers should try to be understanding of how people’s personal lives might affect their work at certain times.
“Normally when the message comes to our HR that ‘Hey, this person isn’t performing,’ there’s something in his or her personal life that needs help, so it’s not about performing because they don’t have the skills to perform, or they don’t want to perform, but there might be some kind of obstacle causing them not to perform,” Leppäkorpi said.
When an employee has sustained work performance issues due to a personal circumstance that lasts for a while, that warrants a conversation, Ganesan said. Managers can support their employees by helping them prioritize their work during that discussion. Sometimes, offering the employee time off to deal with their personal issue can help them refocus, too, he said.
“That’s the nature of our conversations about ‘Hey, your potential is X. We know that. We’ve seen that before. How can we help you go back to performing at that potential?’” Ganesan said.
Consider If Other Teams Are a Better Fit
Sometimes priorities and interests change. Can the employee succeed on another team at the company?
“Because we believe that everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, as long as we can direct them to the right path to make use of their skills, we’re helping them be successful,” Ganesan said.
Such a conversation might look like the manager encouraging the employee to keep trying to do better in their current role for a couple more months, but if there’s an opening that might be a better fit, the manager might encourage the employee to consider transferring to a role on a different team, Ganesan said.
Don’t Let It Get to the PIP Stage
Performance improvement plans (PIPs) are formal documents that outline an employee’s performance issues and recommended steps for meeting their goals. In practice, they’re often the last step before an employee might face termination.
“Most of the time those performance improvement plans are little more than giving an opportunity for an employee to go and find another job while they still have a job,” Devenyi said. “They’re not likely to come out of our performance improvement plan very successfully, so we didn’t want to do that unless really there was no other option. … I could count on one hand honestly the number of times that a performance improvement plan actually succeeded.”
“Most of the time those performance improvement plans are little more than giving an opportunity for an employee to go and find another job while they still have a job.”
PIPs require managers to diligently track the employee’s performance, so managers should try to get in the practice of documenting performance wins and challenges before this stage. If ultimately an employee has reached the PIP stage in their role, Devenyi said managers should take some time for self-reflection to see if there is anything else they can do to offer the employee opportunities to turn their work around like putting them on different projects or tapping into their strengths more.
“You can turn around somebody’s performance very easily if you’re managing it actively, conscientiously, nicely,” he said. “My feeling is if it got to that point, for one reason or another, it’s very unlikely to work out.”