A hard thing to do as a manager is to hold a development talk with an employee that has received low ratings in a performance review. However, applying some findings from psychological research can help make the conversation constructive and valuable. 

A development talk with an employee that has received low performance ratings requires a somewhat different focus than an average development talk. The main purpose should be to get the employee back on track. However, this may mean different things in different cases. Here are some key steps to consider:

  • Investigate the reasons for low ratings prior to the talk. An employee can receive low performance ratings for a number of different reasons. One is of course that he or she is underperforming at core work tasks, but that is not always the case. It might also have to do with team dynamics or leadership issues. For instance, the team in question may have communication problems that create misunderstandings. The employee may also be lacking support in some important respect. Before the talk, think through these different potential explanations. A good idea is to inspect the qualitative comments left by reviewers – indications can often be found there. If necessary, gather additional information to make sure you have as good a picture as possible prior to the talk. E.g., if there are hard KPIs, you can compare the employee’s results on these to the performance reviews and see if they align. 
  • Inspect the employee’s self-assessment. Has the employee rated his or her own performance as low? In that case, the employee is likely aware that there is some kind of problem. On the contrary, if there is a big discrepancy between the employee’s self-assessment and the reviews, there is a risk that the review results will come as more of a surprise, and you can prepare for this. 
  • Present the low review results early in the development talk. A good rule of thumb is that low rating results should be shared as early on as possible in the development talk. The major reason is that this will maximize the time you have to discuss and address the problem. 
  • Take an inquisitive approach. Allow plenty of time for discussing the possible reasons for low performance. Remember that there may be reasons that you as a manager are not aware of. Hence, try to encourage the employee to share his or her own views on why ratings are low.   
  • Focus on the most prominent development areas. In most cases, a relevant focus for a development talk when ratings are low is to look at the development areas rated as most pressing by colleagues. If both you and the employee recognize that these are correct, discuss how they can be remedied. Make sure to communicate that you as a manager are there to help the employee. 
  • Involve other actors if needed. If the talk reveals that part of the problem lies with the team that the employee is in, or with a manager, make sure you decide on actions that address these actors as well. For instance, the whole team may need training on how to communicate effectively, or you as a manager may need to engage in more frequent feedback. 
  • Set clear goals for improvement – and a plan for frequent follow-up. All employees should have clear goals for their development and a plan for how to track them. In the case of low performance, however, it is particularly important to follow up improvement on a frequent basis. First, this indicates that the organization takes performance problems seriously and views it as important to remedy them. Second, it signals support from you as a manager, and avoids leaving the employee on his or her own with this often-stressful situation.  
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