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How to have difficult conversations with underperforming employees

Shaun Hardtke for Progressive Dairy Published on 07 June 2021

The ability to manage isn’t the only skill an individual in a leadership role must possess. Beyond technical skills, most managers, at their core, are strongly empathetic. They want to help people grow, develop and succeed, and most times, they will go a great distance to make that happen with a large portion of humility on their minds. For some managers, this is what makes confrontation so hard.

When it comes time to have a difficult conversation with an employee who is not performing to your standards, it just downright stinks no matter who you are or how strong of a leader you may appear to be. Some managers may try to avoid the issue and pretend the problem will go away or even think that others will fix it for them without facing it head on. Some may even get physically sick, dizzy or fumble their words when ramping up in anticipation to have the dreaded “talk.” But, the fact is this: Employees are fully relying on you (the manager) to give them feedback and to give it to them early. Remember, other employees are watching closely as to how you handle these things.



Is it time to have the talk?

When it is expected for milkers are to perform parlor routines repetitively according to protocol at 12 hours per day, it is extremely difficult and hard on a person’s body and mind – this is where procedural drift comes in. You can give the benefit of the doubt during the first couple days or even weeks of starting new work, depending on what area we are talking about. When you know for a fact that others can prove that a certain task can be done to your standards, there comes a time when a formal conversation needs to happen to a level more than just the “casual redirection talk.” Here are some tips to help:

1. Start with yourself

Before having a difficult and formal conversation with any underperforming employee, ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I getting the full and accurate story?
  • Am I providing this person with the proper tools, support, backup and training to do the job?
  • Did I provide and reinforce clarity in my expectations of protocols right from the start as well as along the way if things changed?
  • Am I being honest with them or just trying to push them out the door?
  • What is it that could be holding this individual back or making him or her flounder?

As leaders, managers always need to question themselves first. If these questions do not make you rethink how the impending conversation’s direction needs to go, then it is time for the talk.

2. Turn on your listening ears

Once you reach the decision that a situation must be confronted with an employee, initiate the conversation by laying out concerns in a clear, respectful way. It is a normal worry that this could go down a confrontational route. This is why it’s imperative to make that person feel acknowledged and heard. If the employee responds in a heated way, keep your cool. Just listen and let the employee finish. There is nothing more sincere as a leader to have the ability to just sit back and listen for a bit, even if that means being the “punching bag.” Listening to comments may even help you learn something you did not know about your organization and team. (Most of the time, conversations never go that far, so relax.)

3. Be clear

After an employee has spoken his or her piece, it is time to lay it all out on the table. Be clear as to the weakness or failure observed. Directly review with that employee the actions you have taken as their leader to help solve this issue. Review “this is how we do things here,” and clarify the protocol or expectation.


Provide expectations of where things need to be with that person’s performance, along with a timeline with certain checkpoints to be sure everything is on track. It will be obvious very quickly if that person cannot hack it due to either attitude or even to the point that he or she just cannot comprehend what is expected. Clarity weeds out the bad.

4. Be confident

After the conversation, be confident in what just happened. If a parting of ways is imminent, remember that the culture will succeed and thrive by this separation. Being shorthanded in the short term will build culture in the long run if the right choice is made. If the conversation turns someone for the better and wakes them up, then you have succeeded. Remember that event going forward, as there will be more difficult conversations just around the corner.

Manage things, lead people

As managers, there is an obligation to manage things but lead people. There is a significant difference between the two. Managers need to not just listen, but more importantly, listen to understand rather than planning what their next response will be.

Even though this method may sound more like helicopter parenting, the main objective is to run a business and get results. Let’s face it, we are in a time where finding high-performing and trustworthy individuals who immerse and dedicate themselves to caring for cows or teams is difficult. At the end of the day, people ultimately seek to be part of an organization with a healthy culture, more so than a paycheck. When people are treated with the respect a human deserves (while balancing out the business side of things) then that business will be recognized among a pool of candidates as the employer of choice.

Managers must stop and reflect daily on their own conversations and actions. Ask this question: “Of the things that I have done today, did they contribute to or diminish our culture?”

Managers may be competent, but they need to be aware that to get to the performance and results outcome part of someone’s mind, they need to enter through the heart.  end mark


PHOTO: For some managers, confronting procedural drift, poor performance and other issues with employees can feel uncomfortable, but by approaching a situation ready to listen, and with confidence and clarity, those problems can often be resolved. Photo courtesy of FutureCow.

Shaun Hardtke
  • Shaun Hardtke

  • Director of Milk Quality and Safety Training
  • FutureCow
  • Email Shaun Hardtke