Very rarely am I accused of saying something solely to make someone feel better. I encourage the use of tough love every chance I get. When someone who is considering a position managing people or human resources tells me "I want to do this because I like helping people," I want to tell them to consider a different option.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not an ogre. I like people and I do want to be helpful. I particularly like the people I work with at 2U. To really help them, I know I can never tell them something solely to make them feel better. Among the best leadership advice I have received is to tell employees what they need to hear, especially when they don't want to hear it.
As a leader, particularly as a new leader, people often believe that their employees will work harder for a leader they like. Where they are mistaken is in the reasons leaders are well liked. It's a blend of encouragement and honest feedback. The best compliment a leader can receive is "I always know where I stand with you."
Warm and Fuzzy
The problem with warm and fuzzy is the fuzzy part. That tends to lead to soft language which gives a false impression that things are better than they really are. Warm and direct is what you want. "I know this is hard to hear but" is a good opening for a frank conversation.
I once had an employee come to me after a conversation with his manager. He was confused. He laughed nervously as he told me he was sure he was either about to get fired or about to get a raise but he wasn't sure which one. Having spoken with the manager, I knew it was the former.
I asked him to tell me about the conversation they had. The manager told the employee what he was doing well and said "it would really help me lobby for you if you could improve in some areas." The manager did tell the employee what those improvements needed to be. What he left out was what he was lobbying for and why lobbying was necessary. The employee admitted to me he was afraid to ask.
When I went to the manager, he felt the conversation had gone well. He thought the employee clearly knew that immediate changes had to be made. I asked a simple question, "Did you tell him that his current performance is bad and if he doesn't make the changes, he's in danger of losing his job." The response? "Not in so many words." If you haven't told the employee in "so many words," you haven't told him in any words.
Framing the conversation
People want to know what's expected of them and how they measure up to those expectations. Failing at your job and not even knowing it is the worst place you can be. When talking to your employees start with the expectations and how success against those are measured. If they are meeting or exceeding those expectations in some areas, point that out.
Then comes the hard part.
"Let's talk about where you're falling short." Be direct and specific in the feedback. Leave no room for interpretation. State how you're going to be evaluating improvement. Define the standard you expect and that anything short of that means getting fired.
If someone is in danger of getting fired for performance, say it simply. Be clear about a time frame in which you need to see improvement and the fact that at any point in that time frame you may make a decision either way. If there are metrics you will be tracking, state what they are and who constitutes improved performance in them.
If you're a leader with an employee who is failing and that employee doesn't know it, you're failing as the leader, not matter how much they like you.