Four Step Tango for Counseling a Deficient Team Member

Call it counseling, feedback, performance review or anything else – talking to people about their professional shortcomings is not fun. 

This is the third article in a series about small team leadership, and it focuses on how to tell people on your team that they need to shape up.

If you lead your team, then you have the critical obligation to counsel people when they don’t do their job well.  First you must decide whether you need to formally counsel them at all.  There are two reasons to take someone aside to share some constructive (or, maybe reconstructive) thoughts:

  1. The person’s attitudes or actions are wrong or are changing for the worse.
  2. Other members of your team, or your clients, are regularly complaining about the person’s work or demeanor.

If the situation doesn’t meet either of these criteria, then hold off on any negative counseling.  Most irritating behavior on the part of team members passes quickly.  Patience, tolerance, and looking the other way is often the best course – but note the event in your mind.  Something got your attention, and either condition described above could develop. 

If you decide that the situation warrants some counseling (and often this is an instant decision that leads to an “on the spot” correction), then take it seriously.  These are the moments where we as leaders can develop a reputation for being fair, honest, and effective.

Over the past 30 years, I developed this Four Step Tango for how to hold a useful meeting with a problematic colleague.  It works well for a short huddle in the hallway, or for a more formal meeting at your desk.


First Step – Define what standard or expectation they are violating.  If you have never stated the expectation before (whoops!), then state it now.  This will help to keep the meeting on track, and it will set them at ease because they know the issue is specific, not general. 

Second Step – Tell them exactly how they are falling short in this area.  Then ask the simple question, “What is your reaction to that?” 

Here is an example of how the First and Second steps sound….

“Steven, our team has high standards that the phone gets answered by a human during business hours.  In fact, we have a standard that says no more than 3 rings, and no one is on hold for more than 60 seconds.  I have seen you let the phone ring through to voice mail lately, and a few clients have complained that you are leaving them on hold for 5 and 10 minutes.  Our standards are clear, and I don’t think you are meeting them.  What is your reaction to that?”

Third Step – Listen.  Don’t rush them.  If you must speak, ask a question like….

“Can you tell me more about that?”

“I don’t understand what you mean by ______, can you help me?”

“Would you give me an example of that?”  Note: this is a very different question than “Can you give me an example.”  The latter sounds like a challenge or a demand for proof.

Fourth Step – Make your move.  You have stated your issues, you have listened to their reaction.  Now is the time to lead by taking one of these three paths:

  1. If you think that something can be done to help them correct things, say so.  Work with them to come up with a plan, as simple as possible, to get them back on track.
  2. If you don’t think that anything can be done to accommodate their behavior or their views on the issue, tell them so.  “Steven, I understand you, but I don’t agree.  Our standards are clear, and I am not changing them.” Either tell them what is going to happen next or tell them that you will consider what to do next and get back to them soon.   Most times, people just need to be told either “No” or “Stop It” and they get in line.
  3. Do nothing.  What?  Yes, do nothing.  Perhaps you have both stated your positions and realize that there is no problem after all, or that it is already solved.  In my experience, this is the most common move a leader makes.  Nothing.  The open dialog has worked its magic!

If you get off subject somehow, get back on.  Restate what you want to discuss.  Don’t let additional issues snowball.  Also, try not to share your experiences and war stories, you are there to talk about them, not you.  It has been my bitter experience that no one really cares much about “Back when I was…” 

Expect a positive outcome.  You are the boss, at some point they volunteered to work with you.  Reasonable people expect their leaders to give direction and can handle some professional criticism.  You are their leader, not their BFF. 

Show respect.  Your observations may be off base. So, don’t be rude and don’t ridicule someone when you are dropping the hammer.  They may have a reasonable explanation, so be prepared for it.

The most important thing is to make sure that, when it is over, they know where they stand with you.  This needs to be crystal clear.  Don’t confuse things by trying to end on a positive note all the time.  Did your 2nd grade teacher do that for you when you threw spitballs?  Did your coach do that for you when you hogged the ball?

Finally, here is a short appendix of useful lines that I’ve learned over the years.  Use them when and if you see fit.

“This is a business, not a democracy. I will listen to you and respect your opinions, but eventually if there is a decision to go left or right and I decide that we are going left, then you need to be aboard.”

“I hired you because I want you to be successful.  That is the main reason why I am talking to you today – we have a team and I want you to be successful on it.  I can’t want that more than you do.”

“You joined the team voluntarily.  If it is not for you, then you should consider another path.  I wanted you on the team, I want you on the team now, but only if you are willing.”

Related: Why You Need to Have Team Meetings, and How to Run Them