Confronting poor performance

Behind the problems that routinely plague teams and organisations are individuals who either can’t or won’t deal with failed promises, broken rules, missed deadlines or just plain bad behaviour. If anyone addresses the issue, he or she often does a lousy job and creates a whole new set of problems. When problems arise:

  • In the worst companies, managers will withdraw into silence
  • In the average companies, managers will say something, but only to the higher authorities
  • In the best companies, managers will hold a crucial confrontation, face-to-face and in the moment

In their book, Crucial Confrontations, Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler suggest that new research demonstrates that managers doing poor jobs at confronting performance and behaviour issues are not just frustrating — they’re costly — sapping organisational performance by 20% — 50%. They further suggest that policies don’t rectify behaviour, but just regulate it: “Let’s be clear on this point: It will be a skill set, not a policy, that will enable people to solve their pressing problems. This applies to quality violations, safety infractions, cost-cutting mistakes, medical errors, recalcitrant teenagers, and withdrawn loved ones. Don’t count on new ground rules, or new systems, or new policies to propel the changes you want. Not by themselves at least — you have to combine them with a skill set”.

For the manager, developing the confrontation skill set is crucial for performance sustainability and values alignment within the team. Employees need to know, however, that the manager will always be fair, values-driven and solution-focused in his or her approach. The steps to achieving this skill set and approach include the following key components for the manager:

  1. Deal with your own ego — the temptation to use positional power to manipulate results is ever-present. Park your own agenda and preferences at the door and learn to relate any issues to company expectations and values. Managing ego means that your biases and negative emotions (like frustration or anger) are eliminated from any confrontation.
  2. Create psychological safety — make the confrontation a safe environment for honesty and transparency. Perhaps even state what the conversation is not about — e.g., “We are impressed with your ability to create warmth in your relationships with our customers and the way that you sort out issues that they have so gracefully. Well done. So this conversation is not about how you connect with the customers at all. What I do want to talk about, however, is the following…”
  3. State the gap — give evidence of the problem through real data — what you have seen or heard. Never assume personality deficiencies or describe possible intent (e.g., “I think that you are lazy because…”), but rather focus on the performance gap.
  4. Ask a relevant diagnostic question — don’t ask a question as an accusation, like “what’s wrong with you?” Just ask honestly what transpired. The book, Crucial Confrontations, suggests simply, “What happened?”
  5. Listen for understanding — make a serious attempt to get to grips with any underlying issues, like a lack of motivation or a lack of ability. These will have two different approaches to solution-finding.
  6. Solicit potential solutions — don’t suggest what needs to be done in terms of ensuing action but solicit action steps from the employee. This serves the purpose of engendering employee ownership for the path ahead.

Poor performance or bad behaviour need to be confronted — this requires a skill set which needs to be developed by any manager. When confronting correctly, team performance and values-alignment are enhanced.

Originally published at on October 17, 2021.




Jonathan has spent over 30 years focusing his efforts on developing people throughout the world. He believes that people have the most impact when stretched.

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Jonathan Mills

Jonathan Mills

Jonathan has spent over 30 years focusing his efforts on developing people throughout the world. He believes that people have the most impact when stretched.

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