How to Talk to a Disengaged Employee About Poor Performance

10 min read
Oct 25, 2022

Managing a company is never easy. A great team of highly skilled individuals will always encounter some problems, regardless of their skill level and training. Just like in life outside of work, an employee's mental state can go through changes based on what is going on in their life -- this can lead to underperforming at work, quiet quitting, or simply lack of motivation.

While you can’t avoid running into obstacles, you can build strategies to overcome any adversity and come out as a stronger team.

Many organizations, don’t always play for what to do when faced with underperforming employees or good enough communications in place to get to disengaged employees before they become underperformers. Instead, their teams face a lot of problems that add up to cause poor performance. While disengagement is a general problem in the workforce, the following five traits are the biggest drivers of poor performance: 

  • Not having the skills to do the task properly
  • A lack of motivation
  • Personal problems
  • Team disagreements
  • Not the right job (e.g., it’s not challenging enough)

These five factors tend to have the biggest impact when it comes to the difference between excelling at work and poor performance. 

Sometimes, employees don’t have the proper knowledge, attitude, or skills for the job. Together, that adds up to poor performance. Also, they will have personal problems such as stress or anxiety that will affect their focus and their performance. There could also be something that actively disengages them from their work. For example, the work might not be challenging enough or there might not be enough time for face-to-face customer interaction, which the employee really enjoys. They could also be burnt out from overworking during the pandemic. 

If you find yourself in such a situation and you don’t want your team’s productivity to plummet, you need to intervene. But talking about these kinds of issues is never a walk in the park. Side note: being aware of your employee's engagement levels through consistent 1-on-1s can assist in tackling issues before they lead to poor performance. 


We’re here to make that job as easy as possible by helping you figure out:

Set clear metrics to measure performance

When it comes to poor performance, all parties—you, the manager, and the employee—need to know that they are performing poorly.

Employees do the things you track and they improve on the things you measure. So make sure that everyone agrees on the metrics and measurement standards before you start talking about poor performance. 

When you need to talk about poor performance with a team member, make sure that they see it coming. Usually, employees think they are doing a good job, and a conversation about poor performance takes them by surprise. You can avoid most of these problems by making sure the following four parameters are clear to both you and the employee: 

  1. What is exactly being measured? 
  2. Who will measure it?
  3. What is the time interval between measuring?
  4. Which team OKR is this tied to and what is considered a success?

Having clear metrics is the first step in resolving poor performance. But it isn’t the only one. Consider when you are revising metrics to tie in the employee's purpose and contributions to the overall organizational goals. 


When to talk about performance: Timing

It’s important to understand when the best time is to talk about underperforming. Something else to note is that different team members may prefer to be communicated with differently. This may be something you have found out through creating a good working relationship with them.  

If you share feedback too early, you might damage the relationship you have with your employee and lose valuable trust. Every job has a learning curve and sometimes employees need a little bit of time to pick up the right rhythm and develop the skills needed to perform the job productively and effectively. 

If you jump in too early, you’re ignoring the learning curve needed for the job. You’re also subconsciously sending a message to your employees that you don’t trust them. Check out 33 Trust-Building Questions to Ask Your Employees

Figuring out the sweet spot when it’s right to talk to your employee about performance issues can take time. One of the ways you can do that is through continuous performance management where you solicit 360 feedback from anyone in the team on a regular basis to quantify performance and track your team members’ output over time.  

One tool you can use to deliver feedback on poor performance effectively is called the Johari window matrix.


How to talk about poor performance with your employees: The Johari window matrix

The Johari window is a 2x2 matrix that outlines how we give and receive information about ourselves and others. The matrix encourages us to receive feedback to uncover our blind spots and share thoughts to remove the facade. Through introspection and by practicing self-awareness to figure out why the problems occur in the first place, we can prevent them from emerging in the future—or at least reduce the likelihood they appear.

Johari window

The Johari window has two columns and two rows. The first column contains “things that I know about myself” and the second column contains “things that I don’t know about myself.” 

The first row contains “things that the group knows about me” and the second row contains “things that the group doesn’t know about me.” 

It’s important to emphasize that the information in these rows and columns isn’t static. Instead, it moves from one pane to another as the mutual trust of the team grows. In turn, that makes certain panes smaller and others bigger. Since we want to have as much trust and open communication as possible in the team, we should strive to optimize the “Arena.” That will prevent many of the problems from occurring in the first place. And if they do, the team’s reaction will “kill the monster while it’s small.” 


How to use the Arena to create trust so that you can talk about poor performance

The Arena is the place where everyone is informed. This is the first pane and it’s characterized by trust and free and open communication. The Arena is where you want your team to live. In essence, all information is public. Team members openly give and receive feedback and openly discuss even the most difficult team situations, challenges, and problems. 

Here, you can talk with your employee about their performance openly— before it becomes something big and unmanageable. The bigger the Arena section is, the easier talking about hard things becomes. 

As a manager, you can increase the Arena by having your employees share more information with each other in team meetings. You can also hold one-to-one meetings with employees to establish a bond of trust and understanding. 

The questions like What should I know about your work situation that I still don’t know? and Tell me a good/bad thing that happened to you at work today? all serve to deepen the trust between the manager and the employee. And when that happens, talking about difficult things like poor performance becomes easier because the employee knows you trust them and have their back. And at the same time, you know that they won’t take it the wrong way. 


How to deal with poor performance by unveiling Blind Spots

Blind Spots are the things that your team knows but that you yourself don’t know. When a team member speaks with others in the group and with you as the manager, they communicate all sorts of things that they themselves are not aware of. These can be verbal cues, mannerisms, intonation, and inflection—or the way they relate to other team members. 

Because this part of the matrix has information known to the group but not known to the individual, the only way the employee can increase their awareness is by getting feedback from the group. As a consequence, the team member needs to develop a receptive attitude to encourage others to give feedback and ask for it openly and freely to illuminate every Blind Spot. By doing so, it will reframe the way employees think about feedback and will make it a personal development tool for them.

You can help your employees see the value of performance feedback by collecting 360 feedback from their team members and then, in an one-on-one meeting, asking the employee to self-evaluate. 

Once they do that, have them compare the self-assessment sheet with the 360 assessment from their colleagues. Use that as a starting point, and the employee can begin bridging the gap by focusing on areas of improvement and asking colleagues to let them know how they are doing over time.

This is a great and non-intrusive way to show the importance of feedback when it comes to fixing your blind spots.   

If you want to decrease poor performance, remove the Facade from your team’s culture

The Facade represents the information that you know but that the team does not.

For one reason or another, employees might keep certain information hidden from other team members and from you as the manager. Employees do this because they are scared that they will be hurt or rejected if other people find out about the ideas, opinions, or experiences they hold dear. 


The assumption here is that, by revealing information, other members or the manager will judge or somehow punish the person. But the only way to test this assumption is by taking a risk and revealing the information to others. If the employee never takes a risk, they will never learn the reality (or unreality) of their assumptions. 

The way to lift the cover on the Facade is for an employee to give feedback to the group and the manager about how they feel about what’s going on with the team.

The great thing about the Johari window is that every pane affects the others. So, if you’re giving feedback to another team member, it reduces their Blind Spots while lowering your Facade. If they do the same thing for you, they lower their Facade and reduce your Blind Spots. 

Add it all up, and when it comes to giving and receiving feedback, it’s all about a mindset shift. If employees think about feedback as a growth tool, they will use it as a growth tool. To support these efforts, provide proper structure. For example, form sharing circles where the team members share one thing that makes working with someone else easy and one thing that makes them difficult to work with. This information can help build camaraderie and improve individual performance.

Activities like this help you get the team around a common purpose of growth. And that means you will need to hear things about yourself that you still need to work on, too. If you do enough of this, it will become that much easier to give feedback about even the most difficult problems. 


Prevent the poor performance from occurring by disclosing the Unknown

The Unknown represents the things that nobody on the team knows.

This is the area where problems start to happen. It’s a place where the employee has biases they are not even aware of, which often causes problems in the first place. 

The Unknown can be dealt with by introspection and figuring out where the basic assumptions that influence how the organization operates come from. 

To help your team conquer the Unknown, you can teach them about the most common cognitive biases and mental models like confirmation bias, the scarcity-abundance model, Hanlon’s razor, and the Pareto principle.  


You can do this in a one-on-one meeting with your employee. But you can also create group workshops or presentations to cover these topics. A great way to do this would be to pick out the cognitive biases you think are most common in your team, ask employees to make a presentation on each of them, and then discuss how each applies to your team. 

This creates a deep and trusting bond within the team, strengthens it, and builds a positive working atmosphere where everyone learns something new about everyone else, themselves, and the team.

Johari window and poor performance

The more information you share with your team, the more trust you will have with your employees. When that happens, poor performance plummets and employee engagement increases because you don’t need to step in and have a difficult conversation. It’s almost immediately fixed by other colleagues providing feedback (i.e., eliminating Blind Spots), which should encourage the employee in question to fix the mistakes as soon as they become aware of them. 

The beauty of the Johari window is that the system is self-manageable. Once employees understand the system and start using it, they will ask others for feedback to remove Blind Spots and will also share feedback to help their peers remove their own Blind Spots. Over time, this is how you cultivate a high-performance team.


You can use the Johari window to launch a conversation about poor performance by asking the following questions: 

  • Can you describe the good and bad things about your current job position? (Arena)
  • What do you think you do quite well in your position? (Blind Spots)
  • What do you think you need help with in your position? (Facade)
  • What, in your opinion, prevents you from being more efficient/productive at your job? (Facade + Blind Spots)
  • Who, in your opinion, is the most productive member of the team? (Facade)
  • What can you do to elicit that kind of performance yourself? (Unknown)
  • What is the one thing you will change to become a more productive team member? (Unknown + Facade + Blind Spots).

These questions are non-intrusive and won’t make your employee feel like they are being interrogated or grilled by the manager. But at the same time, they will start thinking about their poor performance.

The bottom line? The Johari window is good to use as a tool to fix poor performance. But it’s even better to use it as a problem-prevention tool.

Step-by-step guide on how to talk about poor performance

At the end of the day, talking about poor performance will never be easy for any manager. But the way that the best managers deal with poor performance is by preventing the problem from happening in the first place—as much as that’s possible. 


You can also do that by making sure that expectations are clear to everyone on the team, knowing when you should talk about poor performance with your team members, and using the Johari window matrix to help team members continuously improve their performance.

With that in mind, here is a step-by-step guide on how to talk about poor performance:

  1. Create clear expectations for job performance 
  2. Encourage an open mind
  3. Collect 360 feedback across all teams
  4. Have a one-to-one meeting
  5. Use the Johari window matrix
  6. Ask questions, listen, and understand
  7. Collaborate on how to improve their performance 
  8. Set clear expectations for the future and tie them in to their purpose

By asking questions that make the employees think about their performance and behavior, they may see things from a different point of view and improve their output themselves. 

You can increase the size of the Arena by decreasing the size of Blind Spots and the Facade. In doing so, your team will feel a sense of purpose, empowerment, and motivation. And that’s one of the biggest secrets you can learn from the best managers. They don’t do it all by themselves, they ask their team for help, and that’s exactly how they get it all done.


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