OE Construction Corp

Tough But Fair: Having Difficult Conversations with a Construction Team Member

Imagine this scenario: you’ve got a good team out in the field on a new project but one of the workers isn’t pulling their weight. They’re always late and constantly play a game of ‘was I supposed to do that? I thought so and so was doing it!’ If you’ve managed people for long enough, you’ve likely come across this person. They think they’re kicking it. You, and others on the team, don’t.

Now, it’s coming to the annual reviews at year end and you’ve got to deliver the news to this person that they aren’t in fact ‘kicking it’ and they won’t be eligible for a bonus.

Fun, right? Not really. One of the most difficult things a manager has to do, whether they’re leading a company or a team of field personnel, is to have difficult conversations with a team member. It’s a skill that you have to develop, in a management context, because most of us don’t come ready made with this ability. 

So how can you have this conversation and still have a positive outcome?

Make sure there isn’t a larger issue that the employee is dealing with

Often, when an employee is chronically late or has some other attitude related issue, there could be a deeper problem in the works. It could be something happening in their personal life that they haven’t been wanting or have been fearful to share. Open the door to let them communicate with you if there is more to the issue than you’re aware of. It might not be something you can help with, but it’s best to know what’s really going on if you want to find a solution.

Remember that managing is your job

Managing doesn’t just mean giving orders to others and waiting for them to perform: it’s a give and take relationship with each team member. You are responsible to the project, to your company, to yourself, to other team members and to that employee who isn’t up to snuff. If they are underperforming, it’s on you to get to the bottom of it.

Perhaps you had an earlier engagement with that person that went well from your point of view, but not from theirs. Perhaps they’ve been feeling like you don’t trust them and so they’ve started sitting back and waiting rather than getting the job done proactively. If they appear to be unmotivated, it’s not fair for you to assume that they’re a ‘bad employee’ and react to them accordingly. You have to assume that there is something you can do to help motivate them return to the fold, so to speak.

Speak the truth

An important reality in managing is to make sure that your team trusts you. Trust is vital to good, open communication that is both given and taken with respect. If your team doesn’t trust you, they won’t respect you. Ruling from a place of fear will only get you so far: it’s essential to always be truthful with your team. 

With trust and respect comes expectations. You should have high expectations for your team, and they should know what those expectations are. Creating a culture of achievement within your team will motivate the good employees to do more and will help the ones who are struggling to see a path for their own improvement. Setting expectations and assigning people with responsibilities based on their abilities will motivate them to achieve. Lack of clarity and mistrust of your team will only breed contempt between you and them and among the team itself.

Having these conversations with everyone on a regular basis ensures that they know exactly where they stand and what they can do to improve.

Don’t let problems fester

Year end reviews shouldn’t be the first time that the employee is hearing that there are issues with their performance. There should have been ongoing communication and reminders about how they’re doing, both positive and negative.

Leaving the ‘bad news’ until it’s become a problem that will be difficult to resolve positively isn’t good for anyone: not you as the manager, not the employee, and not the rest of the team who are watching how this will go down.

Always remember that adding a little positive feedback can certainly help the negative go down better. 


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