Talking About Employee Performance: Shifting from “You’re Terrible” to “Here’s What We Need”

A reader asks:

“I’ve read about your ‘red button test’ (pretend that you have a red button which, if pushed, would lead to your staff member being replaced instantaneously — would you push it?) and I know deep down that one of my staff members doesn’t meet it. She’s not terrible at her job, just not exactly what I need. But since I can’t point to concrete things that she has messed up, at least not anything significant, I’m not sure how to even start the conversation, even though I’d love to have her move on so I could hire someone else for the role.”


In our coaching work, when a staff member isn’t quite working out but isn’t terrible either, we often find that managers get stuck in the feeling that they have to prove what the person has done “wrong,” in order to give themselves permission to even think about making a change.

But instead, it’s often helpful to shift your thinking from what the staff member might be doing poorly and to what you really need in the role. Once you’ve shifted to that mindset, you’ll have an easier framework to begin communicating your concerns to the staff member and figuring out how to move forward.

Here’s what the mechanics of that framework shift look like in practice:

1. First, remove your staff member from your thinking for now and think about what you really need the person in the role to be able to do. For instance, if you manage a communications director who is good at writing compelling issue briefs but not great at generating actual media coverage, you might get caught up in anticipating all the possible reasons she would tell you that hasn’t been able to be successful in generating press (such as a challenging media environment or limited resources). But if instead you focus on what you really need, you’d realize that what you need is someone who, even in a tough, competitive environment, can figure out how to get your message into the press despite those challenges.

2. Now, think about how you can describe to your current staff person the bar for the role that you articulated to yourself in step #1, and how she isn’t delivering that. For instance, in the example above, you might say, “I hear you that’s it’s hard to get media coverage on our issue, especially without more resources. But what I need in this role is someone who can get our message out despite those challenges – whereas I see your strengths as being more research and writing.”

By moving away from a deficiency model (“here’s what you’re doing wrong”) to a needs model (“I hear you, but I need someone who can do it”), you can change the conversation to one where you can honor what the staff member has done well, while still painting the picture of how you need something different. This also moves you away from the problem of differing perspectives (such as getting mired down in differences of opinion about why a staff member hasn’t accomplished something) and instead allows you to say, “Despite the reasons for why this hasn’t happened, here’s what I really need.”

Of course, this shift in mindset needs to truly be authentic. This isn’t just a conversational framework to make a tough discussion easier; it should be a genuine shift in the way that you’re looking at the situation as you decide how to move forward.