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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 responsibility—I 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 concern—the 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 discussion—talking 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.