The Performance Conversation

The performance conversation is the third of three critical conversations for supervisors to have with team members and prospective hires. The supervisor will first want to ascertain the team members’ commitment to and alignment with the organization’s values via the first two conversations. The performance conversation will then facilitate discussion about how the team member is actually practicing those ideals. Designed to be recurring, this is the maintenance mode, so to speak, of the three conversations.


Why We Need the Performance Conversation

The performance conversation has three components. First, it provides positive reinforcement for the team member’s good behaviors and strengthens alignment with the organization’s ideals. This component is all about relationship-building.

A study by The Florida State University was conducted to determine if there was validity to the assertion that “employees don’t leave their job or company, they leave their boss.” Led by Wayne Hochwarter, an associate professor of management at the school’s College of Business, more than 700 interviews led to the conclusion that poor relationships with supervisors was a leading cause of job dissatisfaction.[1] The difficulties ranged from being ignored to being abused, but the overriding factor seemed to be the lack of validating communication or negative communication.

You can’t build a strong commitment if you’re not communicating.

While it is generally accepted in the human resources community that a bad relationship with supervisors is the most cited reason why people leave their jobs, on the positive side, it is also true that a great relationship is one of the main reasons they stay. People might not even like the company for which they work, but if they believe in their supervisor, they’ll tend to remain in their jobs. They may be unhappy about a lot of things, but having affinity for the person who cares for their interests and to whom they report provides them with enough job satisfaction to keep them in the company.

Most people would say that a good supervisor is someone whose instructions are very clear, who inspires them, and who gives them good feedback. That’s exactly what the commitment conversation, values conversation, and performance conversation collectively provide: clarity, alignment, and feedback. Together, they create a powerhouse of tools that supervisors can use to manage their relationships with their direct reports. The performance conversation is not only the last building block in that system, but also the reinforcement needed to keep those blocks cemented, since it is continued throughout the term of employment.

The second component of the performance conversation deals with the three key issues that can get in the way of performance. If we address these, we can continually make improvements.

The three key obstacles that can get in the way of performance are lack of capability, lack of motivation, and ontological constraints.

The most obvious obstacle to performance is a lack of capability. If team members don’t have the capability to do a job, whether it be due to a lack of training, knowledge, education, or tools, then they are incapable of performing well.

The second obstacle that can get in the way of job performance is a lack of motivation. A person might not have the energy and/or focus required to be successful in a position. A lot of times that’s the fault of the supervisor, who is responsible for maintaining focus and generating energy for the team. However, some people are just averse to focus and energy. We also go through cycles. When we’re really excited about something, we tend to have a lot of focus and energy. If we’re not excited about it, then we don’t have much at all.

The third obstacle is ontological constraints. These are distortions that occur in the way we see and interact with the world. Our worldview becomes misshapen; we may even have blind spots. One example is prejudice. If a male supervisor doesn’t respect women, that is an ontological constraint, because he can’t be a good leader of women if he doesn’t think they’re valuable. A lack of confidence can also be an ontological constraint—If we don’t think we can do something, it will be really difficult to convince someone else of our vision.

We are not our ontological constraints. We think we are, and that’s why we have a hard time changing. Ontological constraints are self-imposed limitations. Something we believe in may well be limiting our development.

The performance conversation can help us pinpoint which of these three factors may be standing in the way of the team member’s best possible work. Supervisors, like coaches, can use the conversation to help their team members grow by recognizing and helping them to remove those blocks.

In addition to these three obstacles, there is a surrounding aspect that further impedes performance: We usually don’t want to talk about it. We’re afraid to give people honest feedback most of the time because we’re unsure how they are going to take it or whether we have the complete picture. We tend to talk about goals, but not performance. We skate around what may be contributing to our team’s failure to reach its highest goals. We set goals, but we fear going back to see how we did against what we said we were going to do.

It may be uncomfortable to measure our aspirations against reality because it’s personal, but if we don’t get personal, we won’t get to the root of the problems so that we can make positive changes.

The funny thing is, not only do we avoid talking about performance, but when we finally break down and have to talk about it, we’re usually discussing exceptions to performance, meaning that we’re talking about when performance doesn’t exist at the expected level. We usually are not focusing on reinforcing what someone did well. It usually comes down to, “You screwed up, and we need to talk about what happened so that it never happens again.”

When we don’t talk about performance as a rule, it’s a double negative, because it also precludes celebrating positive performance. This is something I’ve struggled with in my own company. One example is the people who maintain our servers. They don’t get any glory whatsoever. They might work all night for a whole week to get things right so that there are no outages, and nobody thanks them because nobody even knows they did it. If there’s the slightest problem, though, people are screaming at them. So they get hit with the exceptions in terms of their performance feedback, but they don’t get positive reinforcement when they’re doing a really good job. That’s where the supervisor comes in. The supervisor has got to give the individuals in the group the feedback that is not coming from anywhere else.

This also happens in terms of project completion. If we have a whole pile of projects to be done, and we finish one, what do we do? We turn to the next one without taking a moment to celebrate with our team and say, “Hey, look what we just did! That worked out great.”

It may not feel natural, but if we want to have a performing culture, we must celebrate everything we finish.

The third and final function of the performance conversation is to identify factors that may affect team members’ continued commitment. This will allow us to adjust their goals and our goals as necessary.

There are a lot of dynamics, both professionally and personally, that can get in the way of commitment. On the job, a team member may be anxious about performance, have an issue with peers, feel unnoticed by the supervisor, or get nervous talking to clients. Personal factors could be almost anything: a stressful event in the team member’s life, a partner or friends who aren’t supportive, an itch to change fields, or even a lifelong dream that is calling.

Regular performance conversations give us an opportunity to uncover these factors before they come as a shock. By staying in the loop regarding our team members’ lives inside and outside the office, we are more likely to be informed of changes, or potential changes, in their commitment. It could be regrettable for both parties if a top performer comes in one day, gives us two weeks’ notice, and moves to California. What if the team member moved for a higher-paying job, and we would have paid the same salary? What if that person is not so excited about the job but just took it to move nearer a relative? If we had been told, it’s possible that we would have allowed the team member to work for us out of state.

Of course, we won’t be able to impact every factor that affects someone’s willingness to continue to be committed, but we do want to at least be aware of them. We can go about this by simply asking team members if there is anything affecting their willingness to continue to be committed to the organization. Starting with the workplace, we can ask if there is anything going on that is troubling the team member, someone with whom the team member is not getting along, issues that are affecting the team member’s performance, and the like. Then, we can ask if there is anything outside of work that is getting in the way of commitment. If we uncover something, now we have the opportunity to work on it together, if we so desire. But without the performance conversations, we lose the chance to present a solution to a problem that will eventually cause the team member to decommit. Essentially, as long as the issues come to light, this conversation can create more opportunities for both parties, and who wouldn’t want that?

Preceded by the commitment and values conversations, solid performance conversations perpetuate a team member’s commitment.


What it Looks Like

Like the commitment conversation and the values conversation, the performance conversation must be authentic. What makes it superior to the rote annual review is precisely that it uses the supervisor’s own words, not a form. The supervisor must own this conversation, instead of just going through the motions with a direct report.

A team member can’t be committed to, aligned with, or receive personal feedback from a sheet of paper.

Another reason why authenticity is important is that, by its very definition, it begets honesty. People who are in denial can’t make improvements to their performance.

To make the performance conversation work, it is crucial that supervisors frame it in terms of workability, not judgment. We have to ensure that team members understand that we are not looking to judge; we’re looking to enhance performance. Then, team members will be able to see how they are doing compared to how they agreed to do during the first two conversations.

Think about this: When we let team members go for bad performance, we’re not getting rid of them because we judged them to be bad people. They might be fantastic, but they’re just not performing well in their role at the company. Maybe it’s just a bad fit for them, so there’s absolutely no need for us to judge them as bad people. We can also take the example of an annual review. Who likes those? If team members have done anything that can be viewed as “bad,” going in to meet with their supervisor fills them with dread, as if they were about to stand trial. Of course, they’re going to react negatively to any criticism in this state of mind, especially if they don’t believe what is being said about them. They’re going to fight tooth-and-nail any bad news about their performance. Framed in terms of workability, however, team members can embrace the feedback and try to find a way to make improvements. Instead of supervisors saying, “You didn’t handle this job well. You have to do a better job next time,” they can say something like, “Hey, here’s something I noticed that isn’t working. Let’s see how we can fix it.”

When we can pull the judgment out of a conversation, it becomes much more powerful.

The supervisor begins by sharing the information outlined in the previous section, why the performance conversation is important. The supervisor must relate it to the previous conversations by talking about the values to which the team member has committed. Remembering to always keep it authentic and free of judgment, the supervisor can now initiate a discussion about the team member’s recent growth and contribution to the company.

Questions to ask include “How did we live our values?” and “How did we do against our goals?” The best questions are those that help us determine not what is good or bad, but what is so. Because they don’t provoke emotion, questions like these allow team members to introspect logically about their commitments: “Did I keep my word…or not?” Follow-up questions, such as “What were our successes?” and “What could be standing in the way of our continued commitment?” provide more specificity while still asking only what is so. Since nonjudgmental questions won’t cloud the team member’s mind with worry, they have the best chance of leading to clear solutions.

It may help the supervisor to view the performance conversation as an opportunity for the team member to improve his environment. In an ecosystem, every organism has to participate in a useful way or it will be wiped out. The organism has to participate in two ways: it must grow, and it must contribute to the ecosystem. An article in Issues in Ecology, published by the Ecological Society of America, points out that “although every organism contributes to ecosystem processes, the nature and magnitude of individual contributions vary considerably…and it is often not possible to determine the relative contributions of individual species to ecosystem processes.” What makes humans unique, however, is that we can actually consider and then make efforts to improve our contributions to our environment. Further, we can rely on feedback from others, namely, a supervisor, that will guide us in the process.

Keeping in mind the concept of organic participation, the supervisor can also draw out answers to professional growth questions, such as “How are you growing?” “How are you becoming more useful?” “How are you growing in a way that’s going to better serve our clients?” and “What are your goals, and what has your progress been toward them?”

On the contribution side of that organic participation, which is largely measured in terms of productivity, a supervisor can ask “How are you contributing to our success and that of our clients?” Just like a plant or animal in an ecosystem, everyone in an organization needs to continually grow and contribute to the environment in order for the whole to survive. Any person on a team who isn’t growing and contributing is draining resources and threatening everyone else’s viability. Anyone who continues on that path needs to go.

This logic leads naturally to an open discussion about what threatens the mutual commitment to which both parties have already agreed. The supervisor must be seeking answers to questions like “What threatens my commitment to you, and your commitment to me, in the organization?” “What threatens our organization and its clients?” and “Is anything going on that we can begin dealing with that threatens our success?”

It is obvious that questions and answers are a huge component of the performance conversation, and each organization can come up with its own standard set, as well as experimental questions that can provide great insight as to how the company is functioning. These questions will allow us to discover any urgent, pervasive issues that may be affecting our team members. That is why it is essential to enroll our human resources team into the process.

For instance, we might notice powerful responses and reactions among several team members when we ask a certain question, and we can aggregate that feedback across the company using our performance conversation documentation. Those results may have great value in the way an organization moves forward. The conversations may show, for example, that many team members are wasting time on a particular task.

If there is a pattern in the organization, the performance conversation documentation will identify it, giving the company the opportunity to promptly address problems that might otherwise go on indefinitely.

The function of the human resources department regarding the performance conversation is to monitor the answers to all the questions and look for patterns. Let’s say a few team members left the company in a short period of time, and the questions reveal that there’s a buzz among the remaining team members who are fearing for their jobs. Human resources picks that up in the performance conversation document and alerts management. The supervisors can now sit down with their teams and let them know the true situation, perhaps that, yes, a few people have left, but they will be replaced by new team members who are going to do a great job. They can quell any concerns that the department is in danger and end those negative, worried side conversations.

We can also use this information to note patterns in the work process that are not very productive. We may see that hours are being wasted on a routine that could be altered easily to reduce this chronic inefficiency. Though shocking at first, it’s ultimately a great thing to discover that time or money is being wasted on something that has no value, because at that moment we realize we have more resources at our disposal than we assumed. That scenario is much better than finding out 10 years from now that we were underperforming in some way by 10 percent.

When we identify areas of chronic inefficiency, we can address them and make useful changes.

The next component of the discussion is the supervisor sharing recent values and performance observations, specific examples of how the team member lived into or didn’t live into the organization’s values. This is where the supervisor gets the chance to share feedback that the team member may not be getting from anywhere else. The supervisor can say something like, “All right, we’ve talked about a whole bunch of things. We’ve got some things that aren’t working, some inefficiency, and I get that, but here’s where I’m seeing your performance against our values.” The team member must be encouraged to give feedback and opinions, as well, and this must be discussed. The supervisor concludes by asking the team member some variation of two questions: “Are you clear about the next steps you will take to improve performance in this area?” and “What can I do as a supervisor to better support you or to help you be more aligned with this particular value?”


Putting it to Work

It bears repeating that this conversation must not be implemented without having the commitment conversation and the values conversation first. It will not work well in a vacuum because it builds on the other two pieces.

Ideally, an organization must have the performance conversation at least monthly during a probationary period of three months. After that, an investment of one hour every other month will be sufficient to maintain a healthy dialogue between the supervisor and his team members. For some organizations, two or three months might be more feasible.

The most important thing about putting the performance conversation to work is that we have to track execution. Inevitably, some supervisors will not do it if they aren’t tracked, just like the ones we have to chase down to make sure they do their annual reviews. This has to be something that we make sure is happening, just like the commitment conversation and the values conversation have to happen every time with every new hire, and it has to happen with good frequency. We must enforce this by having supervisors fill out a form, showing that they had the performance conversation, and submit it to human resources. Then human resources will need to track how long it’s been since the last performance conversation for each team member to ensure that the supervisors are doing it.

The performance conversation is the one that requires the most coaching from human resources because it is the most prone to judgment. With the other two conversations, it’s simply a matter of  training supervisors on the material so that they can have the discussion in their own words. We don’t run into a lot of resistance with that. People who have implemented the first two conversations have good discussions and were able to talk authentically and in depth. Human resources will need to spend a little more time ensuring that the supervisors understand how to handle the performance conversation so that it goes well. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that people experience different states of being, so their receptivity will vary throughout the cycle of performance conversations. They may be dealing with a stressful personal issue or a bad project. These emotional factors make it especially important that supervisors be well trained. Initially, supervisors must be trained so that they can make the conversation their own, but the value of ongoing coaching to assist them with aspects of the performance conversation with which they may be having trouble cannot be underestimated.


© 2012 Ralph Dandrea. All rights reserved.


Anatomy of a Performance Conversation

• Why We Need It

  • Responsible for creating environment for team
  • Eliminate obstacles to performance


• What it Looks Like

  • Provides positive reinforcement for good behaviors and strengthens alignment
  • Identifies factors that may be blocking optimal performance
  • Identifies issues that may be getting in the way of continued performance


© 2012 Ralph Dandrea. All rights reserved.

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