How to Tell an Employee They Need to Improve (According to Science)

Updated: Mar 18



When we tell an employee they need to improve, it doesn’t always turn out like we hoped.


A conversation with an employee about their performance can get heated. They may become defensive and blame external circumstances (or even other coworkers) for their shortcomings. To make matters worse, the employee may become emotional and unable to effectively discuss improving.


This being said, if you want to have an impactful conversation with an employee about their declining work performance, your best bet is to look to neuroscience and psychology for insight.


Turnover is costly. But if you structure your feedback in the right way, you can avoid blowback and create a situation where everybody wins.


Why Conversations with Employees About Performance Backfire

Let’s be honest – your employee will have a much different perspective of your “poor performance conversation” than you will. It isn’t their fault. It’s simply evolutionary neuroscience.


When our brains developed, being part of a group was essential to survival. This is why the fear of being rejected from a group still feels utterly devastating, and why the prospect of being fired can also trigger this very primal fear.


However, you don’t just risk triggering deep-seated fears when having a conversation with an employee about their performance.


According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a negative performance review could threaten your employee’s sense of esteem or identity. Esteem embodies everything from confidence to self-belief to respect from others. According to Maslow, we’re hardwired to seek these things.


The negative impact of neuroscience and psychology on performance continues with what psychologists call “negativity bias.” We’re predisposed to hyperfocus on negative events – like a poor performance review. Despite our fixation on negative events, our negativity bias makes us inclined to also remember them incorrectly.


Keep Learning: Attendance write up sample and best practices


How to Have a Performance Improvement Discussion that Actually Works

Neuroscience may be the reason negative emotions surface during performance reviews; however, psychology has provided us with powerful workarounds.


With a few simple best practices, you can improve the chances that a conversation about poor work performance has a positive outcome. Here’s what to keep in mind.

  1. Verify the circumstances. Is your own negativity bias causing you to misunderstand the situation? For example, if an employee isn’t turning in reports on time, is a colleague slow in providing required data? Make sure you analyze the situation from all possible angles and allow the employee to explain their side of the story (free of initial judgement).

  2. Examine your own emotions. The emotional trappings of such a delicate conversation don’t just stop with the employee on the receiving end of things. If the employee’s poor performance reflects badly on you, you may be harboring the same anxieties surrounding rejection and esteem. Make sure you take the time to properly assess whether or not you could be doing anything to improve the situation.

  3. Reaffirm your employee’s place in the group. From the moment you scheduled the discussion with the employee, they probably started to fear the worst. Make sure you begin the difficult conversation by letting your employee know they are not fired.

  4. Respect your employee’s sense of identity. Don’t assume your employee’s performance issues are caused by poor character or willful neglect. When you focus on the behavior and not the person, you avoid damaging your employee’s sense of esteem. Besides, treating your employee with respect is always a good thing to do.

  5. Make the employee an equal participant in the conversation. Early in the discussion with your employee, ask them how they think the job is going. Give them a chance to respond after you explain why they’re not meeting expectations. By inviting your employee’s feedback, you help them fulfill their need for esteem.

  6. Show you care and offer support. Use language that shows you care about the success of both your employee and your team. Create an improvement plan for performance issues and demonstrate your confidence in your employee’s ability to do a good job. Doing so will further reaffirm their place in the group.

  7. Counteract negativity bias with documentation and a follow-up meeting. Despite your best efforts, your employee may still hyperfocus on the negative impact of the conversation and, ultimately, forget details. To avoid this, create an improvement plan for the employee and make sure it’s ready directly after the meeting. Afterwards, schedule a follow-up conversation, so your employee has the opportunity to balance their emotions, develop questions, and get more specific feedback.

Keep Learning: Your 8-part hiring process checklist


Successful Conversation with Employee About Performance

When you use simple psychology to sidestep employee fears, you’re more likely to have a productive conversation that leads to a more productive employee. And at the end of the day, when that employee goes on to do a good job, you can avoid the costs associated with finding, hiring, and retaining a new employee.


Looking for more insight? Check out these resources: