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Poor Performance Conversations: When You're Struggling

Both managers and employees can find poor performance conversations intimidating. Use this quick guide to make talking about poor performance more comfortable and meaningful.

We believe in helping people proactively engage in meaningful work. So, this post emphasizes what you can do when meeting with your manager. When you are wrestling with "What if I sense that my work isn’t meeting expectations? How do I handle a Performance Chat when I'm concerned about my performance?" read on...

Enter Poor Performance Conversations with an Open Mind

Talking about performance can be tough, especially when you worry that your work may not be meeting expectations. But consider some possible outcomes: (a) you might learn that your concerns are misguided, or (b) you might learn that your concerns are shared.

Either way you come out ahead. If your concerns are unfounded, you can better understand expectations and relax more about meeting them. If your concerns are shared, you can get out in front of a potential problem by tackling it head on with your manager's support.

So lean into your discomfort—feeling uncertain about your performance opens the opportunity to have a meaningful conversation about what’s going on.

Here are some specific tips for handling poor performance conversations.

1. Be Proactive!

Although it may seem nerve-wracking to initiate a conversation raising the possibility that your work may not be quite up to snuff, this is a great time to be proactive. So go for it – be upfront with your concern. Show your active engagement. Prove that you care about the quality and impact of your work. Head off any perceptions of disinterest.

Remove any pressure your manager may be feeling to watch your performance and approach you. It’s far better to address concerns early than to permit you or your boss to engage in prolonged rumination. Stewing about performance concerns could negatively impact performance, erode confidence, and/or cause unneeded stress2.

So take the plunge! Reach out to your manager. Ask if you two can meet to discuss how things have been going lately. Enter the conversation with a sense of curiosity. Directly state your concerns. See what you can understand together.

2. Really Be Curious

Curious = eager to learn something. Seek to learn whether your manager shares your concerns about the results you're achieving. Be ready with open, reflective questions.

  • "Is there something I seem to be missing?"
  • "How common is it for new people doing this work to feel uncertain?"
  • "How can I hone my skills and boost my confidence and yours?"

Seek to walk away better understanding expectations and perceptions of your current work. Always aim to leave poor performance conversations knowing how your view and your manager’s view compare. Be genuinely interested in any information you learn about the work. Dive into what it means for you and your manager to try to achieve meaningful goals together. Use curiosity to fend off any discomfort and defensiveness you feel.

3. Focus on what it means to you to do good work.

You’re requesting feedback to help you grow and improve. You’re concerned about your performance because doing a good job matters to you. If the conversation confirms that your work isn’t meeting expectations, be prepared. Receiving negative feedback is tough. Negative feedback can contradict positive self-views (e.g., "I am a great worker")1. However, it’s possible to receive negative feedback without becoming defensive.

Focus on expanding your understanding of opportunities to become more skilled, quicker, more expert, more thoughtful, etc. Resist the urge to process feedback as a personal criticism of you. Instead appreciate the value of an outside viewpoint about the work being done. Use the information to help you build an authentic positive identity in your work.

Caveat: Not every person is cut out for every job. If the expectations being described are truly outside your talents and passions, take an honest look at your options.

4. I think I can…here’s how!

If you learn that your performance needs to be better, take a close look at what that really means. Take a step back from the tasks you do. Discuss the bigger picture of your role and how it fits into the overall system of your organization.

This isn’t about making excuses, it’s about identifying your best opportunities to change from what isn’t getting results to something new that will. Consider:

  • Overall workload – How many responsibilities do you carry? How many teammates do you regularly coordinate with? How intense are the deadlines for the work you do?
  • Goals and values – When you set out to accomplish your work, what are you thinking you are trying to do? What is a higher level purpose that could define what you’re working toward? What values are important to demonstrate as you complete this work?
  • Workflow – How do hand-offs happen – work that precedes you and work that follows you? Within the context of deadlines, where do you fit? How collaborative do you need to be to achieve good results?
  • Training, learning, and skill acquisition – How did you learn what you know in the area that’s proving challenging? How readily does what you learned translate to actual job situations? How varied are the situations you encounter? Who can you turn to for advice, further knowledge, or backup? Where can you acquire additional skills?
  • Life beyond work – Are you facing external stressors that are draining your attention and energy?

5. Talk about how to create strong future performance.

Look Back. Getting feedback is great – it provides information. Feedback points to past actions that were successes, and past actions that were somehow lacking.

Look Around. Looking at the bigger context for your performance is also great. Context sheds light on all of the factors that might influence the work you accomplish.

Focus Forward. However, when it's important to achieve performance improvements, it’s the future that truly matters. What strategies will bring your performance up to the next level? How will you frame high-impact performance goals?

6. What if performance challenges persist?

Dramatic change doesn’t happen overnight. So if you have a lot to learn and improve, it may take time and gradual change to refine your performance to meet (or exceed!) expectations. Continue to touch base with your manager about new ideas. Be accountable for your performance1.

But what happens if time goes by and you’re still struggling to feel (or be viewed as) effective in your role? Poor performance conversations are not magic wands. It may be time to have a different conversation with your manager about how you fit within the role and its responsibilities.

A discussion about poor fit doesn’t have to be negative. It can be an opportunity to clarify your strengths and how you can contribute. It may also be a job crafting opportunity if you and your talents are a good fit for the organization but not for the role you’ve been struggling in. You might be able to redesign your responsibilities to use your strengths in ways that produce effective outcomes for the organization3. When we're honest about our talents and room to learn more, most of us can confess that sometimes poor performance conversations fit into our quest to find and contribute meaningful work. When it's your turn again, try out these ideas to make your poor performance conversations worthwhile.


  1. Ashford, S. (2003). Reflections on the looking glass: A review of research on feedback-seeking behavior in organizations. Journal of Management, 29(6), 773–799.
  2. Cropley, M., & Zijlstra, F. R. H. (2011). Work and rumination. In Handbook of stress in the occupations (pp. 487–501). Edward Elgar Publishing.
  3. Tims, M., & Bakker, A. B. (2010). Job crafting: Towards a new model of individual job redesign. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, 36(2), 9 pages.
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