One of the greatest challenges faced by many leaders is an organizational climate that supports a “go along to get along” culture rather than a continuous improvement environment. We all have a story about a poorly performing employee who got passed on to us because a previous supervisor found it easier to transfer him than to take the steps necessary to improve his performance.

Performance improvement begins with a willingness to communicate directly, honestly and courageously with an employee who needs feedback. The problem, for many of us, is that direct and honest feedback feels bad. It’s a lot easier to speak up only when we have something nice to say, and never risk confrontation or hurt feelings.

Kim Scott, a corporate coach whose resume includes stints at Apple University and Google, has offered up a useful model she calls “radical candor.” The two axes of this four quadrant model measure a supervisor’s propensity for caring personally, and for challenging directly; or what Scott calls “giving a darn” and “being willing to upset people.” What takes the sting out of being willing to upset people is having a high score on the give a darn axis.

Consider the case of Monica, a career employee with 25 years of experience as a contracting specialist for her agency. Earlier in her career, Monica had been an extremely high performing employee. Her contracts were flawless and her output was above average. Over the years, however, Monica had become bored with her job. A succession of supervisors had passed her over for promotions or lateral moves because they valued her experience and performance so highly they didn’t want to lose her. Gradually, almost without anyone knowing, Monica’s performance began to slide. Her attention to detail suffered, and her contracts along with it. Her most recent supervisor, George, was baffled by the contradiction between Monica’s reputation and the quality of her current work, but he felt it would be impolite to challenge her long-standing record of superior performance, so he ignored it.

The problem is that George is doing a terrible disservice to Monica. Now, not only has she been passed over for promotion by previous supervisors, but she is heading toward being unfit even for her current position, and George is letting it happen. What George needs to do is show, over time, that he cares about Monica’s well-being, job satisfaction and career trajectory; and at the same time, begin to be completely candid about the fact that her work is no longer up to standard.

How do you show that you care? By asking genuine questions about the employee’s personal and professional goals; “having her back” on important issues; and making yourself consistently available for discussion and support. Once Monica can trust that George has her best interests at heart, she will be ready to hear that her performance is no longer what it once was.

It’s time for us to stop thinking in binary terms about being nice versus challenging performance. You can do both at the same time. And as a supervisor, it’s your job.

No matter how good your relationship with your boss, there will always be times when you disagree on an issue and wish you could influence her in a different direction. Perhaps you feel you have more subject matter expertise on a particular project and know a better way to move forward than what your boss is proposing, or you have an idea about how to improve a process that your boss doesn’t see the value in. Or maybe the issue is more personal; you feel the boss is micro-managing you, taking credit for your work, or treating you unfairly in the distribution of assignments. How do you persuade her to see things differently without labeling yourself as a difficult or argumentative employee? Here are some steps:

• First, avoid the “fundamental attribution error,” which leads us to attribute negative intentions to someone we disagree with. Whatever your boss is doing, chances are that he isn’t doing it to drive you crazy, but rather because he genuinely believes it is the right course of action for that particular situation. If you begin with the perspective that he has negative intent, you may shut down further options for influencing him.
• Next, follow Stephen Covey’s fifth habit: Seek first to understand, and then to be understood. In other words, ask good quality questions and actively listen to your boss in order to understand her perspective before you begin any effort to change her mind. Another way of saying this is to inquire before you advocate. You should seek to understand the big picture—the organizational factors driving your boss’s perspective that you may not be aware of–in addition to the smaller picture, which includes the relevant history, values, biases, needs and concerns of your boss. Ask questions like, “How do you see this issue? What brought you to this decision? What are the considerations I may not be aware of?”
• Once you feel you understand the boss’s perspective, consider what you know about his personality and behavioral style. Is he a detail person or a big picture person? How direct is his communication; does he seem to prefer a straightforward confrontation, or does he avoid conflict? Does he usually want just the facts, or does he tend to pay attention to the emotional side of an issue? Does he get straight to the point, or spend time making small talk and building rapport first? Tailor your communication style to match his needs, and then make your pitch.
• Once you’ve begun to advocate for your point of view, make sure to keep a respectful tone and an even keel. Don’t let frustration or anger put your boss on the defensive and derail your efforts. Allow plenty of time for your boss to ask questions and make objections, and address the objections in a neutral manner, allowing for the possibility that you may not have considered all the angles.

Finally, should your efforts be unsuccessful, know when to quit! Prolonging the discussion when it’s clear your boss has made up her mind will only hurt your future efforts to influence her. Consider that you may have laid some important groundwork in establishing yourself as a person who speaks his mind in a thoughtful way, and make sure you don’t damage your ability to do so again in the future. Take stock of what you’ve learned during the discussion, and don’t be afraid to try again when the issue is truly important to you.