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You don't need to be a jerk to be helpful.

Posted on 2024-07-16


“I’m not sure how effective the chat was.” 

One of my clients who’s a director at an international consulting firm lamented about a recent performance conversation he had with one of his underperforming employees. Though initially meant to be motivational, he ended up getting frustrated with the employee in the end. “My emotions stepped in.”  

Here's what happened. When he called the employee to his office corner, he was ready to demonstrate his top-of-the-market analytical skills and started breaking down what went wrong. As he dove into each mistake, the issues with the employee seemed endless. The mechanical nods and lackluster stares aggravated him further.  He thought, ‘I don’t see any eagerness that I had when I was at that stage of my career. Where is the spark? Where’s the dedication? What am I gonna do with this person? He’s useless.’ He ended up saying to the young employee, “Why can’t you do better? Is this all there is?” without realizing the underlying tone of criticism and distrust these rhetorical questions convey. By the end, he wondered if he was walking away with anything at all. He thought that the guy was not cut out for the work and blamed Gen Z’s lack of drive and due diligence.

However, in moments of introspection during our coaching session, he revealed that he had never been adequately mentored or coached by his own managers. They all sort of expected him to figure things out on his own, and he sucked it up and did it. The turbulences and challenges along the way were the price he had to pay to earn his current status and expertise, but he didn't dare complain or moan. He just had to deliver.

However, this recent interaction left him feeling like more could’ve been done. He was nervous because two of the most prized consultants had recently left his team without a clear reason. He cautiously admitted that this status quo might cause more turnovers in the future. He confided in me that he didn’t want to be a nagging manager but didn’t know how not to be one.

Performance conversations are not the same as everyday work discussions.

I’m sure you all relate to his story to a certain degree.  This is a common challenge for many managers, especially those who haven’t received proper training or mentoring in people management. While we applaud his courage to trace the issue back to himself, the key point to remember here is that performance discussions must be treated differently from typical work discussions. The aim of performance conversations is to review performance AND motivate toward improvement. Yet, many managers lose sight of the second half of the purpose, focusing excessively on poor performance and driving little change as a result of the conversation.

To avoid this, it’s crucial to have a structure for this special type of conversation. Avoid raising any performance issue impromptu, like in passing conversations or over social occasions. Instead, schedule a dedicated meeting for it in advance, ideally lasting 30 minutes to an hour, ensuring it doesn’t exceed the allotted time. Choose a private, comfortable setting where the conversation can proceed without distractions. And follow these five steps for effective performance discussions.

5 Steps of Performance Conversation

1. EsTABLISH Rapport

Begin by checking in on the employee’s well-being and current state. If they seem tense, reassure them that this is a brainstorming session with no right or wrong answers. A simple “How are you feeling today?” often does the trick, and don't skip this step. You need to smooth into the conversation.

2. ALIGN the objective

You're there to review the performance and align the next steps towards improvement.  No matter how obvious it may be to you, make sure you state it clearly at the beginning of the conversation and make sure you both are on the same page.

1 & 2 should take less than 5-10 minutes. The next steps are the juicy part. 🙂

3. Acknowledge the strengths

Start by encouraging them to reflect on their contributions and have them recognize and praise their own efforts and achievements, no matter how big or small. If they struggle with self-acknowledgement, highlight your own observations of their strengths. Be supportive and encouraging. This is the time to let them know clearly that you see them, you’re with them and you’re there to support.  

Questions to ask:

  • “Looking back on the project, let’s focus on acknowledging your efforts. What do you think you did well?”

  • “What skills or strengths did you demonstrate?”

  • “Regardless of the results, how have you contributed to the team effort?” 

  • “What challenges did you overcome?”

If they struggle to acknowledge themselves and instead divert the acknowledgement to elsewhere, gently empathize with them and encourage them to channel their focus on themselves. The truth is most of us are taught humility is a virtue, and therefore, complimenting ourselves doesn’t feel comfortable. That doesn’t mean we don’t deserve it. 

4. Troubleshoot the opportunities

Instead of addressing all issues at hands, focus on one key area for improvement that will deliver the most significant impact.  Use neutral language to frame the context and maintain a fair perspective. Ask questions so that the employee can identify areas for improvement themselves. This is super important. Your job as a people manager is not to evaluate them, but to build them up. If needed, offer your perspective with their permission.

Questions to ask

  • “If there’s a room for improvement, what would it be?”

  • “If you are given another chance, how would you do it differently?”

  • “If you could tap into your full potential, what can you do better?”

5. Apply to action

Concentrate on one actionable item from your discussion and align on the following to drive action and accountability:

Questions to ask

  • What will you do? 

  • When and how will you do it? 

  • What or who do you need to ensure the execution?

  • Give a little heads-up to think about #2 and #3 a few days before the conversation. You will be able to spend the meeting time a lot more efficiently if both sides come ready.

  • Practice listening and asking questions by acknowledging the employee’s opinions with patience and respect. Listening and asking questions are two fundamental skills fostering a supportive environment for ongoing development. These skills require persistent effort, so keep practicing and observe your own experiences as you develop them.

This structure will help you keep the conversation focused and your emotions at bay so that you and your team can walk away with the necessary motivation and readiness to tackle the challenge and make progress toward improvement.


If you're a corporate leader or entrepreneur who wants to improve your leadership skills, join my program Redesign Productivity!


Do you have questions or need support with your own people management skills?



Joonyoung Kim is a Productivity and Leadership Coach based in Korea. Through her private coaching program for women leaders Redesign Productivity, she shares her deep passion for helping women leaders rethink what being productive means so that they can spend their time and energy meaningfully to drive fulfillment and abundance in life and at work

She is one of the first Korean-English bilingual coaches in Korea to be certified by Leadership Circle Profile™, the most innovative 360° leadership assessment tool available in the market.

In addition to developing women leaders, she also partners with EZRA Coaching, Leadership Circle, and Coachdot as an executive coach and develops corporate leaders from diverse industries across APAC. She's certified by the International Coaching Federation, Co-Active Training Institute & Leadership Circle, and she coaches & trains in English or Korean on Zoom across time zones.



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