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How to conduct a difficult performance conversation

By Anna-Lucia Mackay
05 February 2016 | 1 minute read
Anna-Lucia Mackay

If you were to ask any manager what the most difficult part of their job is, one third will say giving feedback or having a performance conversation.

The reason for this is because few managers have been taught how to have these discussions and, as a result, they often enter into the conversation with the wrong mindset. Having studied mindsets and management for the last 20 years, the research clearly shows the right mindset for these conversations has two components:

  1. Having absolute clarity about the result you want to achieve
  2. Knowing how you are going to conduct the conversation

It is often how managers conduct the conversation that leads to relationship breakdowns. Therefore, the mindset required to enter into the conversation must be one of mutual purpose and respect. This mindset signifies to the other party, "We are in this together, we are both trying to help each other understand issues around performance and results, whether positive or negative – and we are both committed to doing this in a respectful manner".


It is this mindset that ensures you maintain strong relationships and open communication. So how do you achieve this? Here are my top five tips.

Tip 1: Timing 

A key element to handling a performance conversation is timing. Don’t leave the conversation too late, as any issues that need to be addressed may escalate and cause ill feeling and a drop in performance. Likewise, don’t jump into it too soon. Ensure you have all the facts before initiating a conversation.

Tip 2: Preparation 

Give yourself enough time to prepare for your conversation. Lack of preparation usually leads to conversations that go off track, take longer than necessary or become emotionally fuelled.

Typically, the 80-20 rule should be applied to any conversation. That is, 80 per cent of time is spent on preparation and 20 per cent on the conversation itself. When preparing for a conversation, you should have:

  • A clear focus on the purpose of the conversation 
  • An understanding of the core problem and how you will articulate it to the other person 
  • An understanding of their likely response

In most cases, a good manager can predict what the other person will say and how they will react. By thinking through the likely response of the other person, you can prepare your response to it ahead of time. This can be especially valuable if you know the other person may become emotional.

Finally, consider how you contributed to the issue. You don’t want the other person to feel they are being unfairly treated. Did you adequately train them? Did you set your expectations clearly? Was the other person aware of how you were going to measure their performance? 

Tip 3: Ask questions

One of the key skills managers must develop is the ability to ask questions. Questions help you to define and isolate an issue, and come to a resolution. A common mistake is for a manager to enter into a conversation assuming they know why something happened and have an answer to the problem already laid out in their mind. 

The purpose of asking questions is to test assumptions and to validate perceptions before you commence the main part of your conversation. You should also ensure that you use open-style questions to get the other person talking and supplying information.

Tip 4: Listen, look and learn

As the other person is talking, listen carefully to what they are saying, but also make note of what they are not saying. Look for cues in their body language, their tone of voice and any other inferences that may differ from the message they are delivering. The objective here is to determine what is really going on. Is it straightforward or is there something they are not saying? 

Remember also that you need to be seen to be listening. If people perceive you to have your mind or attention elsewhere, then the connection between you will break and the relationship will be under threat. It’s a basic human need to be heard. It links to whether people think you respect them or not. To help demonstrate you are listening, when they have finished speaking, give them a summary of what they have just said to you and your understanding of it. 

Tip 5: Share what you know, not what you think

Once you have asked questions, tested assumptions and concluded that the situation is what you thought – only now is it time to share your knowledge. To do this successfully, it is important to share facts, not what you think is the case as this may cause the relationship to break down. Facts are unemotional, whereas what you think has the potential to upset someone. For example, if someone is repeatedly late, you should share the facts on the dates it took place and the evidence you have of it. You should not share your views on why you think they are late, for example, they don’t care about their job. Stick to the facts!

How to conduct a difficult performance conversation
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Anna-Lucia Mackay

Anna-Lucia Mackay

Anna-Lucia Mackay is an award-winning educator, speaker and writer in the fields of management and education and is the author of The Four Mindsets: How to Influence, Motivate and Lead High Performance Teams.

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