Tough Talk in Performance Management


By Carol J. Sutton

Marshall Goldsmith1 says that “… when feedback is delivered well, it is an absolute gift.” So why do so many performance management conversations prove less than effective?

Maybe it’s because the only feedback most of us get is when someone wants to criticize us. Especially when they “just want to be helpful.” Not just employees, but managers also experience anxiety over performance management conversations because they are held responsible for results. Yet few have been trained in how to communicate performance expectations. Often they are trying to provide guidance, but do not know how.

Nevertheless, feedback is a gift. None of us can see ourselves as others see us. We experience the world from the inside out, while the world experiences us from the outside in. So, while we know that our intentions are pure, we need other people to tell us what effect we have when we put them into action. Although we mean well, we do not always do well.

The success of a performance management conversation rests on everyone involved understanding their respective roles and having the skills to genuinely engage in the process. This means both the organization’s supervisors and managers, and the employees. When done well, the outcomes include alignment of organizational and employee goals, for the enrichment of both. The organization profits from a steady supply of competent, enthusiastic people, while the individuals enjoy opportunities for ongoing challenge and development.

Thus, the HR professional’s ability to conduct rich, constructive conversations—and to assist operational managers to do the same—is crucial to performance management success. Not surprisingly, the essentials include communication and conflict resolution skills.

Employees who understand the concept, and feel well-suited to their positions, can make a performance management conversation easy for his or her manager. However, even high achieving employees can pose conversational difficulties. They often tend to have a great need for self-determination, and although they will accept ideas that agree with the opinions they already hold, they are quick to reject any they feel are being forced upon them.

If doing something new or different is my idea, generally I will be pretty enthusiastic about it. However, if the same shift is required of me, I need to agree with the underlying rationale before I will feel good about adopting the change. This fact lies at the heart of a concept call “Fair Process” 2 which essentially says that if you invite me into your thinking, I will come. I may not agree with your decision about what needs to change or why, but I will engage—if you are being straight with me.

On the other hand, if you attempt to force me to change, I will dig in my heels. Depend on it! Oh, I probably will come along, eventually, if my livelihood depends on it. The organization can still demand compliance in some circumstances; however, no one can mandate cooperation.

As an HR practitioner you, and the managers you are advising, can take a few basic steps to make a performance management conversation less onerous than it might be otherwise. For instance,

  • Know yourself. What is your personality or communication “type”? Are you an Introvert or an Extravert? What type of conversational exchange is most satisfying to you?
  • Know the employee. Same points: What is their “type”, “I” or “E”? Will your preferences match? Complement each other? Or clash? How will you handle that?
  • Know your performance management system. What are the system’s requirement? Are they sufficient, or do you need to augment the process for your department? How can HR assist Operations managers in this respect?
  • Set expectations well. From Day 1 of employment, build a dialogue with the employee about the position, the desired results, company best practices, and what types of training, guidance or other resources the individual might need to perform the job beyond the minimum standards.
  • Engage in performance conversations regularly and consistently. An annual review or appraisal is not enough. Performance guidance must be offered more frequently to be of use in the moment to an employee.
  • Use your system fairly – without regard to how you feel about the individual. Whether HR or Operational manager, you are there to manage the employee’s behaviour, not the person. Respect and dignity are the crucial factors, not personal relationships.
  • Sharpen your own performance conversation skills:
    • – Use active/reflective listening techniques.
    • – Ask open-ended questions.
    • – Make observations, not evaluations

Given that employees most often treat customers as they feel the company has treated them, proficient performance conversations are a crucial step in developing employee excellence.

Carol J. Sutton is presenting Tough Performance Conversations at the Okanagan Symposium: The Modern Workplace in Kelowna on November 24. For more information on this and other professional development opportunities, please refer to HRMA’s online calendar.

Carol J. Sutton Cert.ConRes. is a conflict resolution professional and organizational communication specialist who coaches, trains and facilitates programs that enable clients to move beyond management into leadership roles; to generate stronger results through teamwork, and to increase inter-personal communication effectiveness in the workplace.

1. Marshall Goldsmith’s online compendium contains hundreds of articles and videos;
2. “Fair Process: Managing in the Knowledge Economy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, Harvard Business Review, July-August 1997

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