How to have better performance conversations - Michelle Gibbings

Concept image of two people chatting

Many years ago, I heard a senior business leader speak and they talked about the ‘forgetery’. It was the place where all the unhelpful performance feedback they received went to die.

The concept has always stuck with me. Yes, feedback is essential, and so too, are good performance conversations. Yet sadly, so often, they miss the mark for both the leader and the team member.

Over the years, many people have shared their performance feedback horror stories, which flow both ways. Here are the key themes that emerged from the perspective of leaders and employees.

For the employees, the conversation was ineffective because the leader was ill-prepared, they cancelled or rescheduled at the last minute, they talked too much, the conversation was a one-way dialogue with no opportunity for discussion or questions, and/or the feedback provided was dated, out of context and there were no examples provided to back up the comments. In short, the leader came across as a mixture of distracted and disinterested, and the feedback was deleterious.

For leaders, the key reason the conversation didn’t go well was that the team member wasn’t prepared to listen or hear the feedback. They either became overly emotional and defensive or withdrew from the conversation. Either way, they didn’t actively participate in the discussion. Instead, the conversation felt stilted and shut down and was stressful and unproductive.

You may have other ideas to add to those lists.

You’re not alone
In reviewing the history and purpose of performance management, Elaine Pulakos and colleagues found that formal performance management processes often disengage employees and do not positively impact performance outcomes. Sharing their findings in 2019, they found that the rating organisations use is limited in their value as a performance measure.

Similarly, many employees find the performance review process unsatisfactory. Gallup research found that only 14% of employees strongly agree that their performance review inspires them to improve.

Feedback Matters
Employees want feedback that is meaningful, relevant and well-delivered. Feedback delivered in the right way and with the best intentions is valuable.

Feedback delivered ‘in the moment’ is often the most relevant and helpful for employees because it is timely and tangible. Consequently, many organisations are moving from the traditional end-of-year performance review cycle to more regular, less structured feedback sessions.

At the same time, good leaders want to have constructive performance conversations and, at times, struggle with how to do this effectively.

Consider Context
The last few years have heightened anxiety and raised stress levels. Many employees are dealing with increased uncertainty, changed working relationships, and financial pressures (just to name a few).

For leaders, it’s essential to be sensitive to what is going on for your team members. During times of stress and uncertainty, it is critical to reach out, be supportive and show care and compassion.

This context doesn’t mean you step away from feedback that is hard to deliver or hear. You do, however, want to be conscious of each person’s unique circumstances and challenges and acutely alert to how you provide feedback and how it is received.

Focus on Purpose
For some organisations, formal performance reviews are tightly linked to salary increases and bonus decisions. In contrast, for other organisations, the focus is more on development and coaching. Some organisations try to do a mix of both.

In all cases, be clear on the discussion’s purpose. It helps, at the start of the conversation, for both parties to lay out what they would like to achieve from the discussion.

Strive for Positive Impact
Performance reviews can motivate and demotivate, depending on the leader’s skill in conducting the conversation.

Leaders must be prepared for the conversation, and so too the employee. It is a two-way conversation, not a one-way monologue. The most effective conversations are open where there is curiosity, questioning, and clarifying of ideas and learnings by all involved.

For leaders, recognise when performance goals or KPIs (that were set earlier) are dated. Consider what has changed and how that should be accounted for in the discussion. As well, rather than purely focusing on tasks, projects and output in the discussion, also consider behavioural attributes, such as flexibility, adaptability and creativity.

Pay attention to the details
When setting up the meeting, pay attention to two core details – location and timing.

With many people working flexibly and remotely, consider the best location for the conversation.

In a remote environment, there are additional considerations. Firstly, make sure the technology you are using works consistently. There’s nothing worse than being impacted during a conversation by poor connectivity. Similarly, find a quiet space where you won’t be interrupted by phone calls, children wandering into the room or any other disturbance.

Leaders will want to be mindful when their team members can’t find a quiet space for conversation. This situation may impact how they receive feedback and participate in the discussion. Having other people around them may constrain the team member’s willingness to share.

Similarly, if you have the conversation face-to-face, choose an optimal location – consider privacy and be wary of rooms that aren’t soundproof.

As a leader, select a time when both of you will be in a good headspace for the discussion. You don’t want to rush from one meeting to this conversation and arrive late or flustered. Recognise that the conversation may need to have more time allocated and allow time for reflection. Where possible, allow extra time in your schedule so you have space if the conversation runs over.

Agree on the next steps
How you start the conversation matters, and so does how you finish the conversation.

Before you leave the room, ensure there is clarity on learnings and the next steps. If you’re the leader, ask the team member to play back what they are taking away from the conversation and clarify where there appears to be a disconnect in what has been said and heard. You want to walk away from the conversation on the same page.

Lastly, agree on any actions, progress required or next steps.

Want more?
If you want more ideas, here are additional tips to consider.


  • Be prepared: Take the time to prepare thoroughly. This can include reviewing your team member’s goals, performance metrics and feedback from peers and stakeholders.
  • Create a safe space: Performance review conversations can be stressful. Focus on making the employee feel comfortable so they are more receptive and willing to participate. You want an environment where they can openly discuss their performance, strengths, and weaknesses. Start the conversation by acknowledging the value of their contributions and highlighting their strengths.
  • Get specific: To provide constructive feedback, it’s essential to focus on specific examples of behaviour or actions that the employee can improve upon. Avoid generalisations or subjective comments that can be misinterpreted and can’t be backed up.
  • Encourage self-reflection: Encourage the team member to reflect on their performance and to self-identify improvement areas. This helps them take ownership of their development and create a sense of accountability.
  • Collaborate on an action plan: The action plan should be specific, measurable, and achievable. Ensure the employee has the necessary resources and support to achieve their goals. Find out how you can best support and help them.
  • Open yourself to learning: Ask your team member for feedback on your performance and how you can better support them. Are there ways in which your leadership is impacting how they perform? Be curious about the working relationship and how you can best work together.
  • Follow-up: Performance review conversations should not be a one-time event. Follow up regularly to monitor progress, provide feedback, and adjust the action plan if necessary.

This helpful article from Kellogg University shares tips on how to handle providing negative feedback.


  • Review and prepare: You want to make the most of the conversation, so before you walk in, review your job description and any KPIs or performance targets that were set. You want to ensure you understand your role and responsibilities and what was expected of you during the performance period.
  • Reflect on achievements: Reflect on your accomplishments and contributions to the organisation. Write these down in detail. Make a list of specific examples that highlight your strengths and achievements. This will help you to communicate your value and contributions.  A good tip is to gather these contributions when they happen; that way, you have a handy list ready to go rather than trawling through your memory bank.
  • Identify improvement opportunities: Be honest with yourself and identify areas where you can improve your performance. Consider the actions you can take to improve. This demonstrates your proactivity and commitment to your professional development.
  • Be receptive: Be open to receiving feedback and avoid becoming defensive. Instead, ask questions. Clarify any areas where you need more information or guidance.
  • Set goals: Use the conversation to set specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals that align with the organisation’s objectives and support your career development.
  • Follow up: Follow up with your leader after the performance review conversation and continue the dialogue. Find continued opportunities for engagement and demonstrate your progress and commitment.

Feedback matters. It always has and always will. The most important thing is to ensure the feedback is meaningful, relevant and actionable, and that it is delivered with care, empathy and perspective. If you’re the recipient of feedback, be open to hearing it, and objectively discover what you need to act on, and what can go into the ‘forgetery’.

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