For Managers


Making the Most of the All-Important Performance Conversation

Conversations about performance can be tricky to navigate, but with a little extra leg work you can turn those tricky discussions into meaningful, relationship strengthening moments.


Performance conversations are invaluable. If done well, they align priorities, enhance team workflow, and strengthen the manager-employee relationship.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to execute performance conversations to their best, and they often end up as little more than a dreaded item on the to-do list—for both managers and employees. In fact, one survey found that only 14% of employees strongly agree they are inspired to improve after a performance review. That’s the bad news. The good news? There are ways to make them better!

Here are a few steps you can follow to make your next performance discussions constructive and encouraging instead of uninspiring and negative:

  1. Do the leg work ahead of time
  2. Employ the three elements of meaningful performance discussions
  3. Manage takeaways

Do the leg work ahead of time

Successful performance evaluations are the product of prep work done days, weeks, or even months prior to an actual evaluation. The most important prep work you can do? Hold consistent one-on-ones. These brief, frequent meetings are crucial to a successful performance discussion. There are myriad reasons for this, here are just a few:

(1) One-on-ones provide the opportunity for managers to make sure they are on the same page as their employees. They give managers the chance to listen to their employees, ask questions about their progress and growth, and give and receive updates on projects and improvements. In essence, they are a mini, less-formal performance review.

If you do not have regular one-on-ones, there will simply be too much ground to cover in your more infrequent performance conversations. Ideas, suggestions, and grievances will build up and dominate the time that should be used to discuss the employee’s larger goals and overall performance.

(2) One-on-ones help establish a meaningful manager-employee relationship. If the only scheduled one-on-one meetings you have with your reports are quarterly or annual performance reviews, apprehension tends to build. Regular one-on-ones provide time to interact, understand each other’s personalities and work styles, and relieve some of the tension employees feel when they are asked to speak with their manager.

Holding one-on-one meetings will create a positive foundation for performance conversations based on empathy and trust.

(3) Performance feedback will not be out of the blue or shocking to employees. When your employees already have frequent check-ins they will have a good idea of what will be discussed in the performance meeting—both positive and constructive.

Another important component of doing your prep work is to review your employee’s job description and understand how their work fits into its prescribed metrics. The job description is an excellent and underrated tool that can be used to recognize additional responsibilities your employee has taken on or the responsibilities they may be shirking.

Finally, make sure to review previous performance meeting notes. Remind yourself about their personal career goals in addition to their job-related goals.

Elements of a meaningful discussion

Performance conversations go wrong when no value has been gained by the end of the meeting or when priorities become further misaligned. Employees can sense when a manager views performance meetings as a checklist item rather than an opportunity that can substantially benefit both parties. Make them meaningful by incorporating three elements into your discussions: feedback, inquiry, and timing.


Difficult topics should be handled delicately. If there is negative feedback that needs to be addressed state your observations objectively and then allow the employee to provide their side. Be careful to avoid assigning intentions or characteristics. Of course, make time for praise and recognition of your employee as well!

Giving recognition for the big things your employee has accomplished is meaningful, but there is something special about noticing your employee for the small things. Remember, 70% of variance in employee engagement is accounted for by managers. Showing that you have a holistic view of their contributions or gaps can help build trust for the feedback you have to offer.


Performance discussions are manager-led and you should plan key talking points for your conversation, but you also want to allow for organic flow in the meeting so that the employee has space to talk. It can be tricky to strike the right balance, but it should depend on the employee, your relationship, and how many items need to be addressed. Provide time at the beginning of your meeting to ask the employee questions that you are genuinely interested in and listen with empathy.


Conversations about performance should be held regularly (not saved solely for an end-of-year performance review) and should be considered a priority item on your calendar. When something “urgent” continues to take precedence, your employee receives the message loud and clear: their time with you is not a priority. This can be devastating to the employee who looks forward to the performance evaluation and create difficulties with the employee who needs to make adjustments.

Manage takeaways

A key aspect of performance conversations is evaluating expectations and setting new or enhanced ones for the future. It may be helpful for you to listen to your employee’s ideas before concretely defining and creating performance indicators to measure them.

Creating a plan with your employee to help them achieve their goals makes performance discussions positive experiences. Goals that are directly applicable to the job, as well as skills that are career-enhancing overall should be agreed upon and written down.

Use these conversations to set reasonable goals for their job, create a plan that will help them reach those goals, and let them know how much support you can realistically give them.No matter what, make sure that you are willing to hold up your agreements if they agree to do theirs. Your job is to support them in their position, after all.

Finally, make sure you write down notes immediately following the meeting. This will give you a clear direction for that employee’s next performance discussion and remind you of items to periodically check in on. Send a summary email to your employee with the goals you have both committed to working toward over the weeks or months leading up to the next discussion so they have a record as well. Send them a calendar invite to schedule the next discussion. Now, pat your back. Performance conversations can be hard.

Although performance conversations are often difficult, they are absolutely worth the effort. They provide a unique opportunity to gain insight into your employees, infuse your ideals for team dynamics, and establish credibility by keeping to commitments.

Want to learn more about leading performance conversations with team members? Sign up to attend a free "Performance Discussions" Campfire session 👉

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