What to say to a staff member who’s done a terrible job

Richard Foster-Fletcher shares eight tips for giving feedback to improve dismal performance

As a business owner you know you have to take the rough with the smooth. This means tacking the issue of poor performance. When someone on your team has done some truly terrible work, you need to dig deep to give quality feedback.

Here are my tips based on practical experience:

Get a grip

You may be somewhere on a scale from deeply despondent to furious. This won’t help you have a productive conversation, so you need to regain your composure. I find taking a deep breath and focusing on the outcome I need to achieve goes a long way toward achieving this.

Don’t procrastinate

Memory fades so it is important to give feedback in a timely fashion. If you leave it, you may find your team member making themselves believe that what they did “wasn’t so bad really”. Avoid this by arranging a face-to-face meeting as soon as possible.

Analyse the situation

In a small business you probably know the person well. Ask yourself what caused them to do the terrible work. Are they so dedicated that they wind themselves into stressed frenzy, working crazy hours? If so they’ll need mentoring on how to prioritise and deal with deadlines. If they simply don’t seem to care, you have to tackle their motivation before anything else.

Make notes

Giving negative feedback can be uncomfortable so make notes of the key points you need to get across. If you find yourself getting emotional the checklist will act as your guide to keep you on track.

Only discuss the work

There is no point in personal attacks. You need to keep focussed on the specific facts of what has happened.  If you get personal, you’ll simply make the person more defensive.

A conversation about specifics

At all costs you need to avoid being vague in the critique you give. “You need to do better” or “you didn’t follow procedures” don’t help much.

Discuss the work done and point to specific things that have gone awry. Then, talk about how these issues can be resolved. Without a discussion on what can be changed to improve the quality of the work, there is little chance of a productive outcome. Discussion is key, so the person feels they are being heard and have positive stake in the future.

Forward planning

Giving feedback is stage one. The next stage is agreeing a plan and a date in the diary for a follow up discussion. You may need the person to redo a particular task or they may need to undertake some training or other course of action to improve their performance. Whatever it is that needs to be done, set a deadline and a date to review progress. That way there will be accountability.

Find some positivity

In a standard performance review, you’ll want to give a feedback sandwich and end with a positive statement on something the person has done well. In a situation where someone has done something dreadful I’d recommend a different tack. Make a statement that makes it clear you believe the recipient can overcome this setback. If you have evidence of some past success you can use that to help boost their belief that they can and will succeed in future.

Richard Foster-Fletcher is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs.