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

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Tue Jun 25 2024

When an Employee Thinks They’re Awesome, but You Don’t
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As a manager, how can you prepare to have a crucial conversation about someone’s performance, especially when that person feels they are doing brilliant work but you believe differently?

Here are a few ideas to consider:

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First, 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 a 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 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.

Second, have the right conversation. Could the reason they are feeling stuck no longer be about project A or task B? Could it be a larger issue that has resulted from a pattern? If so, you need to raise the level of conversation. As you talk with them, don’t get mired in one specific instance. Instead, be clear that you want to discuss the topic that you see their level of performance differently than they do.

Third, 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?

Fourth, 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.

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  • Facts: What have you observed?

  • Story: What have you concluded from your observations?

  • Ask: How do they see it?

Finally, 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. 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 people.

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