How to Say It: 10 Ways to Put Your Finger on What’s Wrong  

Ever feel like a staff person isn’t performing at the level you need, but you’re having trouble putting your finger on what the issue is? Sometimes just finding the wording or framing to articulate the problem can be the biggest barrier to talking about it.

We’ve put together language to help you name and discuss 10 of the trickiest performance patterns we see.

1. Inconsistency

When you have a staff member who sometimes performs strongly and sometimes doesn’t, you might struggle to find a way to address it – and often, just as you’re ready to, the person switches back into a stronger mode, leaving you feeling like it’s the wrong time to speak up. But you don’t need to wait until the person’s work weakens again. Instead, just name the issue for what it is: inconsistency.

What to say: “At times your work has been great, such as the web campaign you pulled together last month that attracted so much attention. But at other times I’m left wanting to see more from you, like with the neighbor outreach project, where you left it to the last minute and didn’t seem to give it a lot of attention. I’m looking for you to be more consistent and sustain that higher level of performance all the time, not just some of the time.”

2. 101 vs. 201

This is the person who does well on the basics of the job but doesn’t excel at the job’s more complicated, sophisticated elements. For example, you might have a communications manager who does well at writing press releases and pitching stories but struggles with overall messaging or media strategy, or who grasps the basics of your issue but has trouble communicating the subtleties of it. In other words, they’ve mastered the “101” parts of the job but not the more complicated “201” elements.

What to say: “When it comes to some of the core pieces of the role, you’re delivering results in areas like X and Y. But on more complex fronts, like Z, I’m not confident that the work is going as well. I look at it as the difference between the ‘101’ pieces of the job – where you’re doing well – and the ‘201’ elements, that are higher complexity and often higher stakes.”

3. Can-do-ism

Ever worked with someone who had reasonable-sounding excuses for why she couldn’t do X, and why Y failed, and why Z was out of her control – but ultimately it all added up to a pattern of things not happening in her realm? Of course things won’t always go the way we plan, even with our best efforts, but when there’s a pattern of a lack of results, you might realize that you need someone who can just find a way to get things done – despite the challenges.

What to say: “I know that sometimes things come up and plans don’t always roll out perfectly, but my sense is that we’ve had too many projects that didn’t happen or didn’t succeed for one reason or another, like X this week and Y last month. I know there are reasons when things don’t go well, but ultimately I need you to find a way to make things happen, even when it’s challenging and even when obstacles get in the way.”

4. Ownership

This staff member does well at executing specific tasks you assign, but isn’t driving the work in her realm– she’s not obsessing over details and progress, spotting potential problems, and figuring out how best to push the work forward. For instance, your training director might be great at delivering engaging trainings, but isn’t identifying holes in your training curriculum or reliably pushing to make it stronger.

What to say: “You’re doing a good job on many fronts, but I’d love for you to be more proactive in thinking through how to really drive your work forward – being the one to obsess over details and progress, spot potential problems and devise solutions, and figure out how to best to push the work forward. I’d like for you to make a major push toward really being the owner of the work in your realm.”

5. Results

This staff member isn’t delivering results in her work. You might not be able to point to exactly what she should be doing differently, but you know that you’re not seeing the outcomes you need. This one is tricky because the staff member might make solid-sounding plans and take actions that seem reasonable to you, but at the end of the day, it’s not paying off and she’s not finding a way to course-correct.

What to say: “Ultimately, what I need in this role is someone who can deliver X, Y, and Z. I know it’s hard, and I’ll be up-front that I don’t know precisely what the path is, but I really need the person in your role to be able to figure out that path and put together a plan that gets us there.”

6. Volume

You might not know exactly how long any one project should take and you don’t want to get into “that shouldn’t take you so long,” but you do know that this staff member is becoming a bottleneck and you need someone who can handle a higher volume of work.

What to say: “I know that the bar is high and it can be a challenge to keep everything in the air, but we need someone who can juggle a high volume of work. My sense is that we need to churn out significantly more X and process Y much more quickly.”

7. Sense of possibility

This person is a reliably pessimistic force on your team – regularly skeptical that new ideas are good ones, reluctant to embrace decisions once they’re made, and limited in what she believes she and her team can achieve.

What to say: “To succeed in your role, I need you to bring a sense of possibility to how you operate – to look for ways to make something work rather than default to assuming we can’t, to think creatively to solve problems, and to generally approach your work with optimism and a belief that we can stretch ourselves and do things we haven’t done before.”

8. Anticipating challenges

This person doesn’t spot potential problems on the horizon and as a result has too many “surprise” derailments that could have been avoided with better planning.

What to say: “I’ve noticed that several projects lately have been derailed by challenges that we could have done a better job of anticipating earlier. For instance, we would have had more time to come up with an alternate plan for the gala ticket sales if you’d spotted earlier that the event was on the same weekend as a major activist conference. And we ended up scrambling to finalize the website at the last minute because no buffer had been built into the schedule for delays. What can you do to better anticipate what challenges might arise with projects and plan for them ahead of time, so that we’re not derailed when they happen?”

9. Positive Energy

This person might be producing, but is so grumpy or negative that it’s painful for you and other colleagues to get what you need.

What to say: Talk in specifics – what the person is doing, what the impact is, and what you need to see instead. For instance: “When people ask you for help, you seem irritated with them, which is causing people to go around you for help. Yesterday, when Miguel asked you for a copy of a press release, you rolled your eyes and said that you’d see what you could do but that you were really busy. Doing well in this role requires having good relationships with colleagues, and if people are afraid to approach you, it will really impact your work and your success.”

One note here: Keep in mind that when you’re managing across lines of difference, such as race, class, or ethnicity, you should check your assumptions about what lies behind specific behaviors. For instance, one person’s “you seemed bored” might be another’s “listening attentively and not interrupting.” When in doubt, surface your observations and ask questions so you can understand the staff member’s perspective. (Ideally you’d do these things all the time, of course, but they’re especially important in this context.) Once you understand the context, make your expectations clear. (“I want people to walk away from their interactions with you understanding that you’re eager to be helpful.”)

10. Defensiveness

This person becomes defensive when you give her feedback on her work and argues, gets upset, and/or pushes back to the point that you’re finding yourself hesitant to give her feedback that you know you need to share.

What to say: “Can I give you some feedback about something? I’ve noticed that when I give you feedback, you often push back and advocate for the way you originally did it. I’m glad to explore differences of opinion with you, but the way you’ve been approaching these conversations has come across as almost argumentative and it’s making it tough for me to share input with you that’s important for your work.”