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  • WSL Leadership

How to Tell Someone They’re Doing a Bad Job

The most supportive and psychologically safe culture won’t keep teammates from doing a bad job and making a mess of things. Mistakes can be costly in dollars or reputation or time and energy to get things back on track. People mess things up; it happens.

When teammates do a bad job of something, it is an opportunity for a leader to define (or redefine) their leadership. Responding to someone doing a bad job isn’t the only thing that will define your leadership, but it is a moment that teammates will remember because they see their potential to be in that position in the future.

There are three options for responding when someone on your team does a bad job:

1- Ignore it. This teaches people that poor performance is acceptable and so it will increase. Dramatically. Often people invested in doing a good job will leave when they realize that effort is not valued on your team.

2- Choose an extreme: yelling, shaming and belittling is one extreme, and passive-aggressive or confusingly oblique commentary is equally damaging. This teaches teammates that you are not very emotionally intelligent and not worthy of trust as a leader. Expect respect to dwindle accordingly.

3- Clearly and kindly educate your teammate about their actions and the consequences, then make a thoughtful plan for moving forward together.

If you choose the “clearly and kindly educating your teammate” route, you can do that in a way that strengthens relationships and results in a highly motivated teammate who is not nervously watching their back.

But how?

Here are some questions to guide your thinking when preparing for that teammate conversation.

Look at the big picture, including:

  • Power dynamics - are you the boss or the teammate?

  • Trust and rapport - do you have any? How well do you know this teammate?

  • Psychological Safety - is it a part of your culture?

  • Accountability - does it happen on your team or with the individual involved?

Take stock of the actual bad job:

  • What was the behavior that caused the problem?

  • Does this happen often?

  • How bad was it? A little bit bad? Egregious? A problem of style? Of substance?

  • What is bad about it? What were the consequences/results/implications?

  • What caused this bad job to happen? What were the main contributing factors?

Once you prepare your background info, take a moment to reflect on what you want to have happen during the conversation. The teammate makes a different (better) choice next time the situation arises? The teammate understands their impact on others? They become the champion of a different process or procedure? Clarify what outcome you want from the conversation and use that to keep you focused during the conversation.

Have the conversation and be clear about EVERYTHING.

Start by clarifying what you’re talking about - tell them what behavior was bad. You may be surprised to learn that the teammate didn’t even realize they did a bad job. They may have no idea that was the case - no matter how much you think “they should know.” Revisit any spoken or unspoken expectations that are relevant to the situation.

Explain the consequences of their bad behavior choice. How did it impact others directly, indirectly, emotionally, etc.?

Make a plan for moving forward. What does doing a good job look like? What does the teammate need to do a better job in the future? How can you support them? What are the positive outcomes of doing a good job? What are the teammate's strengths that can be the foundation of doing a great job in the future? What are the next steps? Is there a follow-up check-in that needs to happen? Have you achieved your desired outcome for this conversation?

It is possible to tell someone they’re doing a bad job if they’re your boss or leader. You may discover that the selfless openness they expect from teammates is buried under a fragile ego-shell of unspoken expectations. A leader expecting that they’re always doing an awesome job is just one possibility that they may be shocked to discover is unfounded. It is possible to have a clear, kind and productive conversation telling your leader they’re doing a bad job. Be sure to begin with clarity on your unspoken expectations.

The most important part of this process is to be clear with the teammate. Anything else will insidiously corrupt team trust and respect.

Telling someone they’re doing a bad job can cultivate team-wide effective communication, strengthen bonds, increase drive and uncover roadblocks. Going in intending to clarify while being open to listening and learning the teammate’s perspective will take you a long way toward creating a thriving team culture and cementing trust in your leadership.

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