How do I get the discussion off to a good start?

Probably the toughest ten seconds in management comes when the manager has told the employee that they need to get together to talk about a problem. The appointed time comes, the employee arrives in the manager's doorway, knocks, and says, "You wanted to see me, boss?" What should the manager say to start off the meeting? Here's a script that will work well:

Say, " (Employee's name), I have a problem."

State the actual and desired performance.

Say, "Tell me about it," or some similar statement.

Tell Me More

In an actual situation, the script might go like this: "Margie, I have a problem that I need to talk over with you. It's important that you spend all of your work time actually doing your work, but recently I've noticed that you seem to spend quite a bit of time on personal affairs. For example, last week I noticed that you were working on your income tax return, and then this morning, about ten minutes before lunch, I noticed that you were reading a magazine. Help me understand what's going on."

In starting the conversation by saying, "Margie, I have a problem. . . ," the manager has done three things right. First, she has used the person's name. Second, she has gotten right to the point and not wasted time on irrelevant small talk. Finally, she has taken personal responsibilityI have a problem.

Hot Tip

At the end of this meeting, Margie may well have a problem. But at the beginning of the meeting, it's good to avoid using the accusatory "You have a problem" or the inaccurate "We have a problem."

The manager then proceeded to state the specific concernthe actual and desired performance. The manager didn't accuse Margie of anything, or use generalizations or abstractions. She simply stated very straightforwardly the specific difference between the desired performance and Margie's actual performance.

Finally, the manager placed the conversational ball in the employee's court when she said, "Help me understand what's going on." By doing this, you avoid the most common error managers make when they begin a performance improvement discussiontalking too much. By asking the employee to respond, the manager can listen to what the individual has to say about the situation.

Hot Tip

When you listen to the employee, what should you be listening for? You want to determine whether there is any new information that, if it's confirmed, would cause you not to proceed with whatever action you were intending to take when the meeting started. For example, the manager is about to take a formal disciplinary step with George for repeatedly coming to work late. In answer to the manager's opening request to "tell me about it," George reveals that his teenage daughter is on drugs and when he's been late, it's because he's been getting his daughter out of jail. Assuming it's true, the manager can immediately shift gears and start explaining the company's employee assistance program to George.

Red Flag

Never begin a discussion with an employee about a problem by announcing your intention to take a formal step of disciplinary action. Instead, start by explaining your concern, then listen to what the individual has to say. Only when you've heard the employee's response and confirmed that there is no reason not to proceed with the disciplinary action you intended to take should you advise the employee that the discussion will be a formal disciplinary transaction.

How do I get someone to agree to change and correct a problem?

Begin by writing down a clear and unarguable statement of the difference between desired performance and actual performance. If you can't write down exactly what you want and exactly what the employee is doing that concerns you, there is no way that you can get the individual to agree to change.

Next, simply ask for the agreement to change. Say, "Margie, I need for you to agree that in the future you will spend all of your work time doing your assigned projects and that you'll let me know when you've finished so that you can immediately get to work on the next project. May I have your agreement?"

It's difficult for a person not to agree, since all you are asking for is that the individual agree to do what she is being paid to do.

Tell Me More

From time to time you may get a response that the expected performance really isn't all that important or that the manager is being unreasonable. That's why, as part of your preparation, it's good to write down a list of the good business reasons that the problem must be solved. If Margie responds, "Oh, it's no big deal. Everybody does personal stuff from time to time. You're making a mountain out of a molehill," the well-prepared manager can comfortably respond, "Actually, Margie, that's not true. It is important ... let me tell you why. When others see you doing personal business, they feel that they can do the same thing, or they may resent you for making them work harder since you're working less. If customers come by and see you reading a magazine, they'll wonder about what kind of employees we hire here. Every minute that you spend on your personal affairs is a minute that is not being spent on company business, so we're paying for something that we're not getting. That's why it's important for you to agree that you'll always work on your assigned projects and save personal affairs for your breaks and lunch period. May I have your agreement?"

Hot Tip

Notice that the manager never made reference to "I'm the boss; it's a rule" when she responded to Margie. Of course, the manager is the boss; of course it is a rule. But the power-and-authority approach won't be nearly as effective in getting Margie to agree to change as explaining the good business reasons the company has the rule and requesting her agreement.

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