How leaders can use a framework to transform hard conversations into a way to inspire and motivate.
“Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.” – Frank A. Clark
Performance review is a phrase that can strike dread into the hearts of employees. It’s also made leaders more than a little uncomfortable.
I’ve been the one responsible for having those difficult conversations with my own team. And I have to tell you, it has not always been something I look forward to.
It’s hard to find the words to tell a staff member that they must improve in some way. The reality is that they require that information to grow professionally, as much as your company seeks the improved results.
It makes them stronger and better at what they do.
In composing this blog post, I’m reminded again how much the precise words matter
I was looking for a great quote to start the post off, and I noticed something telling.
When you look up how to give constructive criticism, you get pages and pages of links to things that are negative. Because “criticism” is a word that immediately registers that way.
If you search for the word, “feedback”, you’re going to get more constructive feedback tools for leaders. And that’s really what you’re looking for.
Words matter. And never more so than when you’re responsible for having those difficult conversations with your team.
In today’s post, that’s exactly what I want to talk about. We’re going to discuss what a performance review is and how to make sure that you are really taking stock of each employee’s strengths to inspire the best growth and performance.
I’m also going to give you 10 tips that have absolutely transformed my own difficult conversations. With these steps, you can enter performance review conversations with clarity and confidence to bring out the best in your team.
These difficult conversations are a way that you can reach out to support your team. Failing to do so is one of the toxic leadership traits we strive to avoid.
What Is a Performance Review?
We think of performance reviews as scheduled evaluations to discuss an employee’s performance. That is one type of performance review conversation. These meetings are extremely important, both for the company and the employee.
Checking in with your staff on their progress, and acknowledging the fantastic work they do helps boost morale and makes them feel valued.
There are other times when conversations about performance become essential, especially when the team member isn’t meeting company standards.
These are tough conversations for leaders, as well as staff.
The positive aspect to making time for these conversations is that, when handled well, you’re giving them the tools and encouragement to reach their fullest potential. By having open and honest conversations, you create a “my door’s always open” vibe in your company.
You’re also opening the door for feedback that you might not know.
Sometimes a staff member isn’t performing well for reasons that you couldn’t see. There might be aspects of their duties that you don’t know about. These tough conversations can be as much about listening as they are about leading.
I’ve found that having these conversations is much easier with a framework. So today, I’m sharing mine. Using these ten tips will help you structure your conversations for the best results, with the least amount of worry and dread.
If you’re looking for more information on leaning into your role as a transformational leader, feel free to download my free eBook, 22 Great Qualities of a Transformational Leader.
Now, on to the framework.
10 Tips to Lead Effective Performance Review Conversations?
If you’ve ever been in a position where you had to have a tough conversation about performance and you were concerned about how it would go, you’re not alone.
I’ve been there.
You might be worried that they will take it the wrong way. Maybe you’re thinking that a valued employee would even quit. And that’s not what you’re looking for. You’re looking for improvement, for everyone. You’re looking to elevate everyone on your team.
I used to get so tied up in knots over these hard conversations that I avoided them. I might put them off for a day or two. And then it was so all-consuming that it made the issue even worse in my mind.
Because really, you must talk through these things. They won’t get better on their own.
I learned how to handle these issues with the 10-step framework I’m going to give you here:
- Shovel While the Piles Are Small
- Set the Intention
- Communicate the Impact of the Current Situation
- Ask Questions
- Active Listening
- Confirm and Clarify
- Give Positive Reinforcement
- Provide Some Coaching
- Set a New Goal
- Follow Up
1 —Shovel While the Piles Are Small
This first step is a communication rule at Brave Thinking® Institute. We call it, “shovel while the piles are small”.
Don’t let things build up. If you see an issue or are having a problem with a behavior or performance, address it as soon as possible. Don’t wait until later, because more things will pile on top of that first thing.
Things are easier to deal with when they’re small. A behavior can be changed quickly. But a habit is more difficult to break.
The minute you see performance start to drift, go ahead and have the conversation when it’s a minor issue.
2— Set the Intention
Step two is to set the intention at the beginning of the conversation.
Whenever I’m meeting someone, I start with, “Let me tell you the intention of our discussion today…
”This calms people’s energy because they know the outcome you’re looking to create right away. People often feel more anxiety when things are unclear, so you set the intention right away.
An example of that might be:
“Today, we’re going to be talking about performance. My intention at the end of the conversation is that you and I feel closer as a team. I want you to feel supported and clear about the performance that we’re looking for so that you can win and hit those high marks. At the same time, the company can get what it expects from your role. Is that fair enough?”
You can edit the way that you say it that best fits the scenario for your company. What’s important is that you set a good intention at the beginning that can help your team settle in and get comfortable with the discussion.
3 —Communicate the Impact of the Current Situation
The third step to this framework is to communicate what the impact of the current situation is. There’s a reason for the meeting, and this gives them the facts or data you’re looking at that prompted the discussion.
If someone’s not hitting the mark, if their performance isn’t where it benefits the team best, what is the ripple effect of that?
What is it costing the organization and team?
Answering these questions helps them understand why it’s important for them to perform the way they’re being asked to. It shows them the impact of their work outside of themselves, which might not be clear to them otherwise.
In other words, you’re giving context. You’re giving them the purpose and value of the work they’re doing. This third step is integral because it opens their eyes to the larger impact of their role in your organization.
4 —Ask Questions
The fourth step is to ask questions. It’s not a one way conversation. You’re there to learn about their experience as much as you are to support them in upleveling their growth.
Ask them, “What is going on for you that’s creating this result?”
In asking questions, you’re aiming to get their perspective on the situation. Remember, you only know what you know. You can’t know how they experience the situation without getting their input.
Their answers to your questions should prompt more questions and a more profound understanding of their experience. Ask questions like:
- What is happening for you?
- What is it that you see?
- What strategies have you tried?
- What has worked and why?
- What hasn’t worked, and why?
- Is the expectation clear?
- Is there something you believe that you could do that you haven’t tried?
- And why haven’t you tried?
- Do you feel supported in these options or do you feel like there’s a barrier or limit to your ability to try new solutions?
- What is the barrier and how can we help you overcome it?
5 —Active Listening
The fifth step in the process is active listening. This is more difficult to explain than it is to do, but you’re using the fourth and fifth steps simultaneously.
So you’re asking a question, but then you’re actively listening to the response to get a deeper understanding.
What do we mean by active listening?
Many leaders have been training in active listening. This is one of those skills that takes practice and commitment to live into, every time. It starts with not talking or interrupting while the other person is speaking.
I have to tell you something in complete transparency, this is one of my own biggest challenges. I actively work on not getting ahead of the person that I’m talking with. I try not to interrupt or think forward, so that I can pause and LISTEN.
There are three essential things to actively listening:
- We don’t talk when they’re talking.
- We don’t think ahead.
- We’re not just listening to the words, we’re listening for what we believe they mean, the spirit of the words.
It can be difficult to stop from interrupting or talking before they’ve finished speaking. Especially when you get ideas from what they say. Allowing them to have the space to really speak signals that you’re listening and allows you to really process what they are saying.
By not thinking ahead, you’re staying in that moment. You’re staying present with that person. Sometimes taking a deep breath can help you focus and stay present, so that you can understand what they’re conveying.
By listening to the intention and the meaning behind the words, you’re diving into the real message. You’re looking for a way to connect through active listening.
6 —Confirm and Clarify
The sixth step is to confirm and clarify. The fact that you’ve been actively listening doesn’t necessarily mean that you understand what they’re conveying.
Sometimes we miss things that are not communicated clearly.
This is your chance to clarify that you’re understanding them. It’s not about agreement. This is just confirming that you understand what they said.
For example, they might be saying, “The reason I’m not hitting my performance goals is because another person I work with isn’t doing their job.”
You might not agree with that reason. You can still confirm and clarify that it is what they’re saying.
You’re looking for them to feel heard and acknowledged. If any part of it wasn’t clear, ask clarifying questions so that the person feels fully heard and understood. And so you truly do understand their perspective of the situation.
7 —Give Positive Reinforcement
The seventh step of the framework is to give them positive reinforcement. This is all about being a person of increase and creating an atmosphere where they know that anything is possible, that you have confidence in them.
No matter how far off the mark someone is, there is always something they’re doing right. This is what you want to center on, the wins and how you can help them raise their performance in the areas where they aren’t meeting that level of growth.
What can you share that would be a positive reinforcement?
Look at the other areas where their work is excellent and highlight it. Explain that you know they’re capable of hitting this performance metric because you’ve seen their amazing work in other areas.
Sharing something positive that they’re doing shows the power and possibility that they have. They’ll start thinking about how to shift their positive attributes to the performance area where they need to uplevel. More than that, they’ll gain confidence in their ability because they can clearly see your confidence in them.
8 —Provide Some Coaching
In the eighth step, you’re going to provide coaching. This is where you can help them generate new ideas, put systems in place, and structure support.
Some coaching questions you might ask include:
How can we support you?
What are some structures of support that I can help you with?
You want to help them reach their target goals, and you also want to help widen their perspective. It’s not just about their specific goals, but how those goals support the whole team and company.
You rely on each team member to do his or her part in order to reach your company’s objectives. Coaching gives you a way to support them and help them create the thinking that’s required to reach these goals.
9 —Set a New Goal
In the ninth step, you’re helping them set a new goal.
First, you want to confirm that the coaching is helpful. Use your active listening skills again to ask them whether they believe these new ideas can help them perform at the level required. Once you’ve established clear ideas that you both agree will be beneficial, it’s time to set new goals.
What is a new target that they’re willing to hit?
What’s a move in the direction of them performing at a higher level?
Setting a goal isn’t the end of the process. In order for goals to be effective, we must be clear about the results we’re aiming for and a “by when”.
By when is the date we assign to these goals. There is a “by when” date attached to every task at Brave Thinking Institute because without the exact date, there’s a danger of never reaching the milestone.
10 —Follow Up
The tenth and final step is to follow up.
Don’t wait until the next deadline. Follow up with them regularly to see how they’re doing and whether the new goals and processes are supporting their growth.
Meet on a regular basis. Show your support and that you’re in their corner.
They’ll feel seen, heard, and acknowledged. More than that, they’ll realize that you have confidence in their potential and that will help them build confidence to match (and maybe even exceed) your expectations.
Performance Management: Are Employee Strengths Being Utilized?
Here’s a question that might come up during a difficult performance discussion — is this employee able to use his or her best strengths in the position?
You might have an amazing, bright, fantastic team member, and they’re in the wrong department. Maybe they’re in marketing, but they’d be phenomenal in sales. It’s possible that they’ve been performing adequately in administrative work, but they’d skyrocket in a position that’s more creative.
Resume and experience alone don’t dictate what anyone is capable of. Getting to know where your passions are, what really lights you up, things that excite you, can tell you exactly where you’d shine brightest.
We don’t always know these things when we hire someone. Taking time to get to know them through meetings and check-ins can help you to make sure your team is really given the opportunity to lean into the things that they love through their work. Because that’s what we all strive for — to live a life we love in every quadrant.
Showing love and care for your team builds a winning culture. They know they’re not only supported, but valued.
There are a few reasons to prioritize this culture. First, because it’s beneficial to your team personally and professionally. Also because the statistics very clearly indicate that companies with a great culture see a much lower employee turnover rate (72% lower!) When you build a supportive, truly caring culture, you build a more loyal and high performing team.
Mastering Performance Review as a Transformational Leader
Through the course of this blog post, we’ve talked about what performance reviews are, and when they’re necessary.
I’ve shared some of my own experiences with these tough conversations, and the fact that many leaders dread these types of talks.
You’ve also learned that the most successful way to approach these discussions is with a framework. And I’ve given you my very best, ten-step framework that I’ve used to successfully navigate these discussions and see amazing results.
We’ve also talked a bit about company culture and how individual passions come into play with performance. I hope these are all things that will help you as you move forward in your career as a transformational leader.
If you’d like more resources on your journey, please feel free to download my eBook, 22 Great Qualities of a Transformational Leader, as my gift to you. You’ll find a wealth of information in these 22 power moves that will help you cultivate your leadership potential.
Think Bravely and Act Boldly!