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Having the Right Conversation

By: Patrice McGuire

Having the Right Conversation


Leaders at all levels often struggle when they need to have accountability conversations with employees.


Perhaps you have an employee who isn’t meeting performance expectations.  You have several conversations with this individual and their performance hasn’t gotten better.


Maybe you have an employee who is exhibiting undesirable behavior.  You’ve addressed the behavior several times and yet it continues.


In many organizations we work with, these types of situations can continue for several weeks or even several years.




The simple truth is, it’s because leaders aren’t having the right conversations.


If you have the same accountability conversation multiple times and nothing has changed, you may not be having the right conversation.


You will also want to make sure that you have set the stage for your employees’ success by being clear on what you expect.


When an employee begins working with you, be sure to communicate the performance expectations of their role and let them know how their performance will be measured.  Clearly define behavior expectations, as well.


For both performance and behavior, you will want to be specific in your description.


For instance, if “be respectful” is an expected behavior, break it down by describing exactly what it means to be respectful and what a person needs to say or do to show respect.


Let’s imagine you must address an unmet expectation repeatedly over the course of three different conversations.


Here are the priorities you want to focus on in each one.


Conversation #1 – Ask questions and re-establish expectations


The first time an expectation hasn’t been met, follow up with the employee and ask questions to learn more.


Some of the questions you might ask are:

  • What can you tell me about this?
  • What has prevented you from meeting this expectation?
  • What have you tried in terms of strategies to meet the expectation?
  • What ideas do you have about meeting the expectation going forward?

It’s possible you may learn in the conversation that the person didn’t understand the expectation or had a different definition of what you were expecting.   It will be important to re-establish clarity around the expectation at this time.


If there are other barriers, you can work with the employee immediately to help them overcome those barriers in the future.


Conversation #2 – Address the pattern.  This conversation will be important since the expectation was made clear in the first conversation yet is still not being met.


Initiate this conversation with the question, ‘what happened?’


You will want to focus on the pattern you have observed relative to the unmet expectation and refer to the agreement you established during your first conversation.    When addressing the situation, be careful not to make assumptions. Use the term “pattern” or “history,” and describe the facts you have from your observations.


Conversation #3 – If the pattern continues to occur even after conversation #2, it is time to communicate candidly with your employee about the possible impacts of these uncorrected patterns:

  • Their job security may be at risk.
  • Future advancement possibilities may be minimized.
  • Co-workers have begun to lose trust and respect.
  • You will most likely need to move toward a formal documentation or disciplinary process.

Re-establish clear expectations one final time, allow the employee the opportunity to talk about what needs to happen for them to meet these expectations, gain their agreement, and be clear about the consequences if a fourth conversation is ultimately needed.


Having the right conversations


As leaders, we tend to avoid accountability conversations.  We like to “hope” away the unmet expectation.  The sooner we have these conversations, the more quickly we can resolve the concern and the easier it will be to do so.  It is easiest.


If the problem continues even after multiple conversations, it might be because you are not providing clarity, sharing observations and recurring unmet expectations or because you don’t adequately convey the impact of unmet expectations.


Make sure you have these progressive conversations every time an unmet expectation shows up in any team member’s performance or behavior.


And, here is a great structure for having productive, positive conversations.


Download our six step process for having difficult conversations




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