Providing honest feedback to a direct report, colleague, supervisor or even a family member or friend are common issues brought to a coaching session.  Identifying the beliefs or stories one holds around the issue allows for increased awareness, perspective and understanding about beliefs, values and the situation or individuals involved.

 If the leader holds a mindset that giving feedback will result in an individual becoming upset or angry, the leader might avoid taking action. The problem is that avoiding action causes unintended reactions in others and ultimately confrontation and conflict within the team and for the leader, which is really what,  the leader wanted to avoid.

 When someone is not performing as necessary for the job, others do notice – even if we think they don’t – and there are consequences. The individual who isn’t performing as expected might not realize there is a problem or if he does, he’ll begin to learn that it’s OK to keep doing what he has been doing because no one has told him otherwise and performing poorly can become his norm. Others who work with him label the leader’s inaction as ‘special treatment’ because they see nothing change. In addition, the leader ends up taking more on to compensate for lack of performance or asks others to compensate which over time undermines authority, accountability and respect.

 The Context Shifting Worksheet (CSW), a tool developed by Dr. Charlie Pellerin, former director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division, founder of 4-D Systems and author of How NASA Builds Teams: Mission Critical Soft Skills for Scientists, Engineers, and Project Teams , is excellent for use in this type of situation. Working through the CSW allows one to consider the conversation or situation separate from the emotion, stories and drama that cloud perspective.  The CSW guides an individual through a four-dimensional framework represented by leadership styles termed Cultivating, Including, Visioning and Directing.  Stories or story-lines, as we refer to these in 4-D terms, are “Red” (thoughts or expressions that seem true but are arguable and limit our behavior) or “Green” (thoughts or expressions that empower and allow for possibility thinking and action).  

 What I see most often when a leader complains about someone who is underperforming, is the realization there are unclear agreements, even if the leader thought these were clear, and poorly defined roles, accountability and authority resulting in inconsistent understanding of expectations among the leader and direct reports. Clarifying agreements and roles, accountability and authority are a great place for focus as you work to help someone more clearly understand performance expectations.

 Adopting a green story line such as:

  • Providing feedback is my responsibility as a supervisor,
  • Having a conversation with the individual allows him the opportunity to improve, or
  • If I don’t tell him what is not working and what I expect, how will he know

allows the leader to engage in an open and honest exchange. The key is to stay in the conversation and stay committed to your desired outcome. More often than not clients report that when they engage directly with a troublesome individual listening to understand and appreciating their perspective, they find opportunity to clarify agreements, come to mutual understanding and clear accountability for both parties that sets a strong foundation for success. If performance issues continue, the leader has the opportunity (given the agreements and expectations set in the previous conversation) and the responsibility (as a leader) to check in and depending on the findings take further action according to the organization’s process for performance and disciplinary concerns. 

 For more information and resources on 4-D and How NASA Builds Teams, visit