Keys to having effective performance conversations

Hands up if you’ve ever been excited to have performance conversations. Anyone? 

Not many people enjoy engaging in them, either as an employee or as the leader. They feel so forced and awkward in their calculated orchestration. 

As leaders, deep down we know that performance conversations can be valuable. And they are, when they’re done well. 

For team members, they can be stressful (“they don’t see all the things I do, only the times I miss something!”) or annoying (“I have a million priorities and they’re going to make me jump through hoops so they can tick a box and say we’ve reviewed my performance, but it doesn’t mean anything!”).

Here are some of the keys to having effective performance conversations:

Set the tone and the timing: As soon as team members know that a meeting with you is about their performance they’re going to feel uneasy (even the best and brightest on your team). It’s a visceral response, that good old threat-and-reward area of the brain is lighting up with what-ifs and possible outcomes. 

Have you ever worked where there are supposed to be performance reviews every quarter, but it never happens? And then suddenly someone decides performance reviews are imperative and must be done  –  and everyone feels incredibly anxious? It can feel as though something dire has prompted them out of necessity.

Or, perhaps you’ve been in a workplace where performance reviews are done on a strict schedule and follow a rigid template  – so they feel rather pointless and stressful with no real discernible benefit.

If you tell everyone that you’re going to have performance conversations to check in every X months and stick to that schedule, you’ll encounter fewer frayed nerves with an established routineand rapport. Or, better yet, if you talk with your team to let them know you’re going to make a habit of frequent, short, check-ins on performance a regular part of the workweek, it will become even more routine and will magnify the rapport.

Do some groundwork: When your team members feel mistrustful of a process they can’t control, they’re not going to be receptive and open to meaningful dialogue. If you want performance conversations with your team members to be effective, you have to build trust. 

It takes time to be vulnerable with each other, and we’ve talked about five ways to build trust with your team. With performance conversations, you have an opportunity to build trust and give your team members a chance to be involved in the process well before they’re sitting across the table from you hoping the things they’re good at outweigh what you think needs to be improved. 

Here’s how:

  1. Find out more about each team member’s personal preferences for feedback. You could give the same feedback using the same words and tone to 10 different people and have very different reactions. (At Padraig, we use the DiSC personality profile assessments to help leaders understand themselves and their team members better.) What you’ll find is that some folks dread performance reviews because they fear losing control, while others hear feedback as rejection or a loss of security. Others don’t like feeling criticized and wonder what standards you’re using to judge them (because they are exacting!).

    You’ll also find that different personalities thrive with slightly different types of constructive feedback. There are those who want a brief, to the point summary of what could be done better and how – as long as you hear what they have to say about it and they know you still have confidence in them. Other folks will do much better if you meet in a more casual setting and talk through change in terms of feelings and ideas. Some other team members need very concrete examples and may need time to process feedback (possibly in light of policies and procedures) or they need to plan and feel supported as they incorporate suggestions into their practice.

    To help them (and you) prepare for performance conversations, a few weeks before you even start scheduling meetings, ask your team members to answer a few quick questions. Ask for specific examples of times they were given feedback to help them improve. You want to drill down into what worked for them individually and what did not help them.
  2. Make time for reflection. The better you are prepared, the more effective each performance conversation you have will be.
    Think about each team member individually and what you want to communicate (the good and the bad) during this meeting. What do you want them to take away from the meeting? What do you have to say that they might not expect?
  3. Include time for the team member to participate in the conversation. By definition, a conversation is the exchange of information and views (this isn’t a monologue!). While you’re leading the conversation, it’s very helpful to encourage your team member to share.
    • Find neutral ground to meet. Your office is your turf (and it could feel like being called to the principal’s office). It’s also possible that you might be interrupted mid-discussion if you stay where everyone can find you. Book a conference room for performance conversations. It doesn’t hurt to have some warm beverages in the room so that people feel more relaxed (and some folks might appreciate a drink if they get dry mouth when they’re nervous). 
    • Many times you’ll learn more if you listen first. Ask your team member to talk to each of your assessment points so you find out their perceptions before you share your own. It may inform what you discuss and it could also give you ideas on how to give feedback in a way it will be received. You might also be surprised by the goals your team members have. It’ll be great if you’ve given them a heads-up before the meeting that you’d like their views on this.
    • Really listen. It sounds simple, but listening with the intent to understand is one of our favourite strategies for leaders because most of us listen with the intent to respond. Be curious and hear them out before you interject with your own perspective on the assessment and any goals they may have. 
    • When you speak, pay attention to your tone and your wording. Keep your tone supportive, or at least neutral and avoid words like, “always” or “never” or “worst” because these extreme words incite defensive behaviour. 
    • Focus on the work and not the personality. Use specific examples of both strengths and areas that could use some growth (some folks find it helpful to think about this in terms of the behaviour, the outcomes, next steps going forward to maintain/improve/problem-solve). If your intent is to help this team member stretch and grow, how can you coach them to success?
    • Pause and listen. After you share your perspectives, give your team member time to process and respond. Some people need a little longer than others and it helps to be comfortable with a bit of awkward silence. At Padraig, we mentally remind ourselves of this with the acronym, WAIT — Why Am I Talking?
    • Make a plan. What do you need, coming out of the conversation? You might want to check in with each other in a few days, after the team member has had time to think about things. Or you might need to touch base in a week or so about next steps, be that new projects or support in the form of educational opportunities or mentorship. Capture, out loud, whatever the plan is today so that the next steps stay on track. 

You can create your own notecards to prepare for performance conversations, or use our downloadable Performance Feedback Worksheet. This worksheet includes additional employee pages to be completed a few weeks before the meeting, to help you and your team members get ready.   As an employee, you can prepare for your performance conversation using the Performance Feedback -Employee Worksheet to create valuable feedback.

Coach’s Questions:

Have your thoughts about performance conversations changed? What is challenging for you with this approach? What can you do to improve performance conversations with your team?

Is there a difference between recognition and appreciation?

As leaders, we hear how recognition and appreciation are important for fostering workplaces where team members feel valued and supported.

By doing this, we not only build relationships, but we build the foundation of strong teams: we build team trust.

While recognition and appreciation might be similar in practice, they are distinctly different in an important way.

Recognition is earned by doing something; it’s related to performance or results. Consequently, by nature, recognition is past-focused and conditional.

Examples of recognition are things like awards, bonuses, or promotions or even an informal thank you.

Appreciation is celebrating team members for who they are. It’s more about being grateful and cognizant of who they are as people and what they bring to the team.

Think about how often you have opportunities for recognition with your team. There might be some really impressive moments to acknowledge and celebrate, but there are also many struggles of good effort (perhaps some failures). Aside from that, there are usually many peripheral contributors on your team who may not often end up in the spotlight. What about them?

I recently read a Harvard Business Review article by Mike Robbins about why employees need both recognition and appreciation. I really liked this quote he used from a commencement speech that Oprah gave that highlights why appreciation is as important as recognition:

I have to say that the single most important lesson I learned in 25 years talking every single day to people was that there’s a common denominator in our human experience…The common denominator that I found in every single interview is we want to be validated. We want to be understood. I’ve done over 35,000 interviews in my career. And as soon as that camera shuts off, everyone always turns to me and inevitably, in their own way, asks this question: “Was that OK?” I heard it from President Bush. I heard it from President Obama. I’ve heard it from heroes and from housewives. I’ve heard it from victims and perpetrators of crimes. I even heard it from Beyoncé in all of her Beyoncé-ness…[We] all want to know one thing: “Was that OK?” “Did you hear me?” “Do you see me?” “Did what I say mean anything to you?”

Seen, Heard and Understood

In coaching school, we learn that a key component of coaching is to ensure our client is, “seen, heard and understood” because everyone wants to be seen, heard and understood by at least one person.

We all need to feel appreciated. Everyone from our team members and colleagues to bosses and clients. They all want and need to be seen, heard and understood. (This also works for personal relationships!)

Here are ways to make sure that the people you work with feel that you appreciate them:

  • Make eye contact when you speak to them. It’s easy to get caught up in the busy-ness of work and answer while reading your phone or email, but actually stopping and looking someone in the eye says they matter.
  • Listen to understand. If you follow our blog, you know that we really encourage leaders to focus on listening to understand because too often we listen with the intent to respond. People want to be heard. When you stop and really listen, what they say might help you to respond better (or differently!).
  • Don’t wait for a reason to connect. While you may think you’re available and you talk with your team when necessary, it’s not the same to, say, ask for an update on a project as it is to just check in with them one-to-one. Chatting informally with the folks that you work with and asking how things are going with their work or a specific project (not in passing – but taking a minute to really listen!) will let them know you care about them as people and not just cogs in the wheel.
  • Tell people what you value about them. When you take time to acknowledge that someone on your team has a particular skill or talent, they feel seen. It could be as simple as a quick email to say, hey, I really like how you pitched in on this assignment and shared your knowledge of formatting the document. Feedback that is timely and authentic can really affect how people feel about working with you.
  • Give a handwritten thank you. In this day and age of texting and emails, a handwritten note really says that you’ve taken the time to stop and say something. It underscores that you’ve made an effort to highlight your gratitude for something that you’ve noticed about someone.
  • Acknowledge an absence. When folks are away from work, whether for something happy like a vacation or challenging like an illness, pick up the slack for them. Then, when they return, let them know how much they were missed.
  • Offer to help. If someone is having difficulty (personal or professional), show that you care about them by offering to help. They may or may not accept your offer, but they’ll know that you valued them enough to make an effort.
  • Give a do-over. We all make mistakes. Once in a while it’s nice if the folks around us give us a do-over. Show people you trust them to make things right.
  •  Celebrate milestones, both personal and professional. Finding reasons to celebrate together for everything from winning contracts to birthdays builds a company culture of growth and happiness.
  • Ask about their lives. Some people are more comfortable than others about sharing details about their lives outside of work but getting to know your team builds trust relationships. Pay attention when members of your team share bits and pieces of their lives and show an interest so they feel you value them as people.
  • If you’re not their boss, tell their boss how much you appreciate this person. There are so many things that can go unnoticed – and unappreciated – unless someone says something. Be that someone.

Coach’s Questions: 

How have you shown your team members recognition lately? How have you shown appreciation? Are there ways you can improve? What are ways you can start this week?