How to Warn a Long-Time Employee They’re Falling Down on the Job

In our Zoom session last week, one of my executive coaching clients asked how he could give more effective correction and direction to a tenured team member. He knew what the content of the feedback should be, but he did not feel as confident about holding the conversation as he would if he were working with a new employee. 

It was one of those classic situations in which a mostly satisfactory employee has certain negative behavioral tendencies. Immediately following feedback he’ll do better for a while, but then he seems to slip into his old ways. Whenever the backsliding happens, not only is it a problem for my client but it also makes others in leadership believe that this guy will never be able to progress.

My client wanted this conversation to be a wake-up call, but he didn’t want to insult his team member, so we agreed that a critique was out of place. And yet it’s better to alert an employee when they’re not meeting expectations, particularly about behavior, rather than harboring resentment about it. Resentment could affect their assignments, compensation, career trajectory, or the perceptions that others hold of them. So we discussed how to talk about grounding the feedback in terms of both the employee’s career growth and the employee’s relationship with my client. 

Support the Employee’s Career Trajectory

If you know that an employee’s lacks or bobbles mean that they could end up stalled or sidetracked in their career growth — and you believe they want that growth — then the responsible thing is to raise the issue as part of a career conversation. Because that’s forward-looking, it will emphasize your concern for their success rather than harping on a negative past. You could say something like, “Jerry, I’d like to use our next meeting to talk about your career trajectory, what your next steps could be, and what you might want to concentrate on to be sure you’re ready.”

In my client’s case, he could explain to Jerry that one of the criteria for a promotion to the next level of management is that the leaders need to have a good opinion of him — and although Jerry had been doing better recently, it was important that the leadership team recognize that he’d truly turned the page on his previous unsatisfactory behaviors and would not return to them.

This conversation is a valuable opportunity to discuss any concerns employees have about the match between their desired trajectory and their present successes and weaknesses, and to inquire about the kind of support they want from you to help them improve or stay the course. Pay close attention to these needs. Be prepared to help employees practice new behaviors; encourage them in their career trajectory if you feel they have potential — or manage their expectations if they don’t. Providing feedback and development that will help them or bringing in other support from HR or mentors is part of your responsibility as the authority in the relationship. 

Support the Success of the Relationship

And here’s another relationship-based perspective: It can feel risky to give feedback to a longstanding employee, particularly when you haven’t necessarily been explicit or perfectly consistent about clueing them in to their problematic tendencies. And it can be even more challenging if you’re worried that you’re being a little unfair, specifically because the feedback is about how you want things done, when you know that there may be other valid approaches and your requirements could be considered somewhat subjective. 

But when someone falls down on the job and you help them get back up, and then, at some later point, they fall down for the same reason, you can emphasize that as important as it is to stay on track so they can move ahead in their career, their ability to stay on track is also a big factor in your relationship with them. Explain that you’ve asked them to make this change and they have shown they have the capacity to do so — and you want to be able to have confidence in them and be able to take that worry off your list, unless they raise a specific issue where they need support. 

If you feel they’re not understanding the seriousness of your conversation, try telling them, “This is important to me.” For some people, the idea that they have to change to be successful is not motivating to them. It actually matters more to them, and they’re more likely to be willing to change, if they know it’s important to you even when they may not have cared much about the issue previously. Don’t overuse this gambit or make the conversation about you. But remember that part of any strong work relationship is caring about each other’s goals and preferences, and a stronger relationship usually lends itself to both better work and more satisfying career growth.

Onward and upward —


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