Conversations for Employee Improvement

Even good employees can get stuck. They may not be not able to problem solve through a difficult situation, or perhaps a personal crisis has affected job performance.

Conversations for Employee Improvement

Sometimes even corporate decisions to freeze hiring and promotion can stretch people too thin or syphon away motivation for excellence. Whatever the situation, a conversation for improvement can often make the difference in helping employees get unstuck. Not only that, but these conversations can also help grow trust and respect in the reporting relationship.

Two paths are possible here: Some employees know they are off track and bring the issue to their manager. Others are oblivious to the problem. You will want to handle these two situations differently.

If there is already safety and trust in your relationship with your employees, they may approach you to discuss whatever challenge they are facing. Resist the temptation to provide answers. Instead, problem solve with them by asking these questions:

Looking forward, what could be the best possible outcomes? List a few possibilities.

Where do you want to go from here to move toward the best possibility?

What do you really want to accomplish?

What will you need to focus on for this to happen?

What are the current obstacles you’ll need to overcome to move in the right direction?

What is the first step you will take to begin moving in the right direction?

Who else could help you with this?

Questions encourage new ideas and open up pathways for new thinking. Your employee may now be able to envision ways for moving forward. If this does not occur, you can provide specific guidance and insight to actions, behaviors, and next steps that will help get things back on track. Using this method of asking questions instead of providing answers allows employees to benefit from your management experience while also collaborating in the problem-solving process. 


Employees who are oblivious to being off track can be more challenging to redirect. How can you help these people become aware of problems without triggering fear or anger?

First, begin the conversation by indicating your willingness to assist in the problem-solving process: “This is not working, and it’s time to create a new solution. Let’s do it together.”

Second, reconnect to the bigger goals or values that both of you share.

Third, offer specific feedback or guidance to recalibrate actions and behaviors. Directives that give a clear picture of the next steps are useful to people who are stuck. A clear directive is something like, “Keep a time log in 15-minute increments starting immediately following our meeting, and track how you use your time during the next three days.”

Fourth, give difficult feedback by first explaining what the employee does well and then pointing out what could be better. “Juan, you have done a wonderful job providing the research and procedures for the team. My intention now is to help you see the next area for your development as a manager. I’ve observed that you sometimes shut down creative brainstorming with judgmental questions and comments. I suspect that you are not aware that this is happening. Are you open to learning more about communicating more effectively with other team members?”  

Fifth, if necessary, communicate the serious nature of a situation. Say something like, “This issue is bigger than I suspect you understand. I want you to take this very seriously because if this is not resolved, it could cost you the trust of your team members (or your job).” You do your employees a service by showing them how management sees them, especially when the issue is so serious that it could derail their careers.

World-class leaders are not afraid of conflict because they know how to get individuals back on track.  Knowing how to ask the right questions and to engage in conversations for improvement is the key to developing star performers and star-performing teams. It’s also the key to growing your own leadership abilities.