Constructive Performance Conversations

by Paddy Barr, Managing Partner, Barr Performance Coaching and IMI associate

The purpose of a good quality performance discussion is to appropriately recognise the individual for their work, motivate them to continue to produce good work, and help them to learn and develop professionally.  As a manager or leader, it is your responsibility to develop talent in the organisation, and the performance discussion – or appraisal, or review, or one to one – should be seen as a talent development enabling process rather than simply a progress review.

Research indicates that it is not simply having high performers that matters, but ensuring you are using your high performing talent on your most important strategic initiatives that will bring long term benefit to the organisation.

Deliver Positive Results in Performance Discussions

When you are meeting with direct reports for a performance conversation or review, you will be looking for the discussion to have a positive result. Good outcomes should include:

  • The individual feels appropriately recognised for their contribution
  • The individual feels listened to in terms of ideas they may have for their own development
  • The individual feels motivated and excited about their future and the team/company’s future
  • The individual understands the feedback and the relevance of the feedback in the context of their development and their role
  • The individual clearly understands their development areas, feels ownership for the actions and is motivated to address those development needs
  • The individual should feel that they have their boss’s support in pursuing a development plan

To achieve the outcomes above, the feedback must be extremely clear, relevant and supported by objective data. Great feedback is focussed on the future; it will encourage the individual to continue to grow and develop.

After the meeting, keep an eye out for evidence of the individual responding to the feedback. If you notice positive changes in approach or behaviour, be sure to swiftly recognise those changes and offer encouragement.

Performance Discussions With a High Performing Individual

In addition to the attributes above, you will need to add a further dimension to this review. If you have a high performing employee, you can be sure that others (both internally and externally) will have noticed this individual’s performance, and you could run the risk of losing the employee to a competitor.

The performance discussion is therefore a chance to “re-recruit” the individual. You could almost think of them as someone you are trying to poach from another company; make the conversation about them, and what you can do to help them achieve their goals and develop their career.

It is important to challenge yourself as follows:

  • Are we using this high performing individual in the best way for the company’s long term success?
  • Are they doing a business critical role? If not, you probably need to move the individual into a more important role.

Performance Discussions with a Low Performing Individual

Remember, your company hired the individual for their demonstrable skill at some point, so to some extent you are accountable for the situation that now exists.  The content of the discussion should never be a surprise to the individual as you should have been giving feedback in the moment as you witnessed good or substandard performance.  The objective of the discussion is to identify a positive outcome for both the company and the individual, bearing in mind that the outcome may be either together or apart. It is important to be well prepared for the discussion with the low performing employee and be sure to ask yourself the following questions in advance of the discussion:

  • What specifically is the individual lacking to be successful in the role? Are the answers to this question objective or subjective? Do you have feedback from third parties to support your view?
  • Is the individual talented, but in the wrong job?
  • Is the dip in performance temporary or prolonged? Is the individual temporarily distracted by non-work factors e.g. a sick relative, relationship issues or financial pressure?
  • Would the individual have been more successful if they had received more support from you or others in the company?

You have the opportunity to help the individual so use the opportunity wisely and constructively.  In the meeting you need to adhere to the following:

Be very factual: Focus the conversation on controllable deliverables and outcomes. Remember the individual’s dignity, and do not make the conversation a personal attack. If an individual fails to deliver due to an uncontrollable event, then the feedback can focus on the individual’s reaction to that event and whether or not it is reasonable to expect that they should have had a viable contingency in place.

Be balanced: Inevitably, the individual will have some strengths – recognise those strengths but do not obscure the primary message. Sugar-coating the message may confuse the individual or, worse still, they may not get the key points you were trying to make. Therefore, separate the two aspects of the feedback: give the positive feedback and then address the less positive feedback.

Be very clear on next steps: Put a plan in place, make it as objective as possible with clear deliverables and timelines. Make it clear what the consequences of not meeting the requirements of the plan will be.

Listen with an open mind: You need to give the individual the opportunity to express themselves. By listening with an open mind, you will get a better understanding of how you can help the employee address the situation. It will also help you understand the employee’s perspective – you may learn something that changes how you approach the next steps.

Write down your feedback: Sometimes employers/managers have a tendency to have a clear conversation, but not follow up with a written summary of the key points of the discussion. All important points must be put in writing and sent to the employee in a timely fashion. Points made verbally in the meeting cannot be used in the event that the employee subsequently ends up in dispute with the company. Only written feedback is admissible in any formal dispute resolution process, unless you have recorded the conversation. However, before recording a conversation you must get the employee’s consent to both the act of recording the conversation and how you intend to use the recording.

Giving feedback: The content in a performance review meeting should never be a complete surprise, so it’s important to check that you have been providing feedback (both positive and formative, in writing and more informally) to the individual over the last few weeks or months. In the case of a low performer, verbal feedback alone can quite often be ineffectual, and – in a worst-case scenario – it is often not admissible in a disciplinary procedure.  Don’t forget, too, that high performers need to get recognition – it is the fuel that will keep them motivated.

Are you very clear on the message you want to deliver in the meeting?  In the case of a high performer, be sure not to over promise or give the impression that you can enable a future benefit that is not within your sphere of influence.  In the case of a low performer is it important that you message is balanced but check to ensure that you have not sugar coated the message.

Tips, Tricks & Takeaways

In the case of a low performer the individual should remember the conversation as being a key part of their personal development, it should not in any way come across as a personal attack or impinge upon their dignity or self-worth.  A good outcome would be that they understand what it is they have to do and understand the consequences of not meeting the requirement as well as knowing that you are willing to help them if they are willing to help themselves.


Practice an imaginary performance review with a colleague or peer and get feedback from them on the language you are using.  Specifically, get your colleague to check for the clarity of your message and the balance in your approach: nobody is perfect, so there must be development needs to be discussed, and there must be a few positive attributes that the person displays, so these must be recognised too.

Alternatively, you could practice for a real performance review you have to give – but ensure that the person you practice with is appropriate. It should not be a colleague who knows the person, or will have to continue working with them.