AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Talking about Performance

Copyright 1999 AXIS Performance Advisors, Inc.

Talking About Performance

Overcoming the Hurdles to Productive Conversations

Courtesy nirots,

Courtesy nirots,

No one denies the importance of performance review in developing teams and employees. Yet agreeing that it should be done and doing it well are worlds apart for most managers and teams.

We’ve written a great deal about what is wrong with traditional review processes (Peer Reviews and chapter 9 in our book Why Teams Can Fail). We have long advocated for an open review process that provides teams and individual employees feedback from all relevant sources (customers, co-workers as well as managers). Designing the system, however,is only half the job.

Eventually it comes down to a conversation that many people feel ill-equipped to conduct. This issue provides a model and framework for having meaningful, productive andeven low-stress dialogues about performance.

A System for Continuous Performance Improvement

It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about teams or individual employees,whether you are a large organization or a small one, whether you have an empowered environment or a traditional one. Continuous performance improvement does not happen by accident. It requires thoughtful attention to a simple but powerful, cyclical system that includes 5 components:

The system begins with the clarification of strategic organizational goals that define where the organization is going. This is usually done at the highest level of the organization (though more and more organizations are involving employees at all levels in the process).

Once the macro goals are set, each significant business unit (departments,teams, or in some cases individual employees) should identify its own performance goals in support of the strategic goals. With unit performance goals identified, the business unit begins a cycle of measuring its progress on the goals, reviewing and analyzing progress data, managing the consequences of its actions, then revising or updating performance goals (and periodically strategic goals), and beginning the process again.

Most organizations do the planning piece (who doesn’t have a strategic plan and at least budget goals). Many organizations also have at least some fundamental measures in place that let them know how they are doing. Where the cycle seems to break down most often is in the review step. It’s as if we are afraid to face up to what the data says, or worse, have to confront each other about what is not working.

Three Levels of Review

Because of the way they have historically been conducted, “performance review” usually connotes a meaningless, sometimes awkward meeting in which one person is evaluated by another on things that happened a long time ago. The basic problem is that reviews have become more about judging and determining compensation than they have about learning and continuous improvement. If you agree that the latter is more important than the former, then it helps to distinguish among three different types of exchanges.

 Level 1: Feedback

The technical definition of feedback is “informative reaction or response.” It is a non-evaluated reflection of an event or behavior. This means that if I am giving you feedback, I am simply reflecting back to you something that I have observed. It is a straightforward, non-threatening exchange of information between equals. I am not judging the information I am sharing, nor do I have a stake in what you do with the information. If delivered in this tone, it is usually easily received.If there is anything difficult about giving feedback, it is getting in the habit of giving often.

Level 2: Problem Solving

Sometimes there is more involved than just sharing of information. Sometimes I do have a stake in what you do with the information I give you because what you are doing has had some negative impact on me or the performance of our team. In this case I am not only sharing feedback with you (helping you see the effects of your behavior), I am also working with you to come up with a course of action that will work for both of us.

If done correctly, the conversation can still be empowering if judgment is suspended and if the other person has equal control over the resolution. If approached with this frame of mind, it is still a conversation between equals who work collaboratively to arrive at a mutually agreeable course of action.

Level 3: Evaluation

In our minds there is little use for evaluation. Adults need feedback for learning and they have a responsibility to participate in problem solving where they are impacting others. Evaluation ? the pat on the head if you’re good or the wag of the finger if you’re bad? is anon-value added and often demeaning addition to the conversation. Once presented with the data, adults seldom need to be told that what they have done is either good or bad. In addition to being unhelpful, evaluation can drastically change the relationship between the two parties. It irrevocably establishes one as superior, the judge. When this exchange occurs between employees and their manager, it reinforces the traditional, parent/child hierarchical relationship; not one that fosters empowerment and a sense of shared ownership.

This does not mean, however, that managers (or team members for that matter) have to sit by silently in the face of chronic performance problems. There are times (though they should be rare if you have been consistent in having level 1 and 2 conversations) when it is time to enforce the natural and logical consequences.

This is the conversation you have when the agreements made in level 2 have been broken an unacceptable number of times. Then it is time to pull rank, judge the performance and enforce the consequences. It is the conversation of last resort, one you hope you never need to have.

Planning the Conversation

Knowing what kind of conversation you are having will help you set the right stage. The process outlined below will help you choose the best words. No matter which of the three conversations you will have, think of itas having four parts. (This process was inspired by a presentation by Stephen Covey.)

Check in — This is the conversation opener that introduces the topic and begins the review of relevant information.

Reflection — This important step encourages us to take the time to identify what we can learn from the information. This is the step often overlooked in our rush to resolution,but the one that makes an important contribution to continuous learning.

Planning — This is the step where participants decide what, if anything,should be done next.

Support — This is where the instigator of the conversation offers help and support. For managers, this is the step that reinforces empowerment. It is a powerful way to say, “You have a responsibility here, but I will do what you need to make you successful with it.”

While the steps stay the same for each type of conversation, the words you choose will change. Use the tips and example phrases in the chart that follows to prepare your own dialogue for your next talk about performance.

Tips for Talking About Performance

 Process Step


Problem Solving


Check-In”Did you know that …””I noticed that you …” · Present your observations or data clearly.· Be objective; describe what you saw not what you think about it.· Provide feedback as soon after the event as possible.· If you appreciate what they did, be sure to express your gratitude. · Describe the situation focusing on observable behaviors or measurable outcomes.· Describe the impact of their behavior and your reaction to it or your feelings about it.· Describe the situation only once.· Pause to give them the chance to respond. Same as in Problem Solving accept it may be necessary to include documentation.
Reflection”What do you make ofthis?””What do you think is

at the root of this?”

· Ask clarifying or prompting questions encourage reflection.· Paraphrase what you hear to help THEIR understanding.· Remember feedback does not involve your interpretation.· Listen empathically (from THEIR perspective not yours) · Discourage solution jumping.· Spend time talking about root causes.· Paraphrase what you hear to help YOUR understanding.· Ask for their interpretation or conclusions. · Let them defend their position while you listen.· If they get excited, you can diffuse the situation by staying calm and listening empathically.· Be sure to paraphrase what they are saying so they know they are being heard.· Help them focus on roots not excuses. Ask, “Why is that?”
Planning”What do you thinkshould be done?””What should we do


· Help them think through their next steps.· Offer advice only as requested.· Remember THEY get to decide what to do. (If you find you have a vested interest in what they do, shift to Problem Solving) · Give them a chance to suggest a solution first.Add your ideas only if their solution doesn’t meet your needs.· Be sure to acknowledge what you like about their ideas.· Make a joint plan about what will happen next.

· Make a date to check in on progress.

· Get clear (and possibly written) agreement on what will happen
next.Include a discussion about how to measure progress and hold each other
accountable.· Explain the “or else” consequences if results are
not achieved.
Support”How can I help?””Would it help if I …?” · Offer your assistance.· Be honest and sincere about what you can and cannot do.· Be sure to follow up and follow through on what you offered. <—-same <—-sameMay also need to advise them of their rights (to grieve, contact union
rep, etc.)

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