Discussing Performance – How to avoid having a civil war

It’s unbelievable how quickly “performance” conversations can spiral out of control. Formal performance reviews have their own particular challenges, but even informal performance conversations can be tricky.

I recently observed one of my workshop role-plays where a participant was playing a team leader having a conversation with a member of his team who wasn’t performing at the level the leader wanted.

We’d spent time as a group preparing for the conversation and the participant “Peter” felt reasonably comfortable with how he planned to approach the exercise. But within a minute of starting the role play, the conversation had gone completely pear shaped.  Peter had said something that “triggered” his role play partner and it was all downhill from there. The hole got deeper and deeper. It was fascinating but painful to watch.

When we did the “debrief”, Peter’s role play partner “Julia” made some interesting observations. She commented that from the moment they started talking she felt under attack. Peter had opened the conversation by indicating that he was concerned with how Julia was performing and stated he wanted to provide her with some constructive feedback. She noted that she found herself pushing back immediately and challenging the basis for his statement. She said she felt Peter was being unfair and was just trying to blame her to protect his position and even though it was just a role play, she found herself getting sucked in and lashing out. The role play had reminded her of a previous real life situation where she felt she had been hung out to dry and not been given a chance to explain her side of the story.

Her responses were classic “fight” behaviour in terms of “fight-flight” responses that you might experience in a challenging conversation. I set out some common examples of fight-flight behaviours in the table below:

Fight responses Flight responses
?       Denying what is being said

?       Challenging your motives

?       Making threats

?       Shouting

?       Displaying anger / hostile gestures

?       Demeaning or verbally attacking you

?       Avoiding eye contact

?       Withdrawing and going silent

?       Agreeing with everything you say

?       Not responding or minimal responses to questions

?       Talking negatively about you to others after the conversation



We all go to fight-flight when we feel threatened. Our brains are wired to protect us and our fight-flight behaviours have played a big part in how our species has survived. When the sabre tooth tiger was coming for our ancestors, a big stick or a fast exit was what we needed. However, when we find ourselves in the workplace, these reactive behaviours usually don’t help us, which is why Dan Dana, the author of Managing Differences talks about them as our “wrong reflexes”.

Of course every conversation is different and not everyone would have responded in the way Julia did. But when you know you’re going to have a challenging performance conversation, there are things you can do to try and avoid a scenario where the other person goes into fight-flight mode.

Here are some suggestions.

Prepare properly for the meeting

If you know you are going to have a challenging conversation, make the time in your calendar to prepare properly. I’ve written previously about how you can prepare for a hard conversation but suffice it to say that spending time gaining clarity around what you want (and don’t want), putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, thinking about questions you’d like to ask and being clear about what you want to say is invaluable.

Reflecting on what the other person is thinking, feeling and wants will help you anticipate what they might say and enable you to be in a position to effectively respond to their questions, objections or comments. Preparing for a challenging conversation will always be a good investment of your time.

Elevate the context – emphasise good intent

People often don’t recognise the good intent a manager has when wanting to have a conversation about performance. They just see you as an unreasonable boss who for whatever reason doesn’t like them. So it makes sense to remind people at the start of the conversation what the organisation and the team are trying to do and why it’s important to regularly talk about performance. It’s useful to explain what you want for the organisation, the team and each of your team members (including them) to illustrate your good intent. By doing this you elevate the context so they understand the conversation is being driven by the organisation’s needs and objectives.

Be patient – don’t go too hard too early

One of the things I often see people do when they are nervous and feeling uncomfortable about having a performance conversation is rush into sharing their “constructive / critical feedback” very early.  They seem to have a desperate need to get their concern / criticism on the table as soon as they can. The problem with this is that it almost always creates a defensive dynamic that leads to what my friend Cinnie Noble, author of Conflict Management Coaching, calls the “the not so merry go round of conflict”. Once you get on the conflict merry go round, it becomes very difficult to get off.

Taking a little time to build rapport, explore the situation, and listen to what’s being said won’t prevent you from eventually sharing your feedback. Now I’m not saying you need to allow 3 hours for each hard conversation, but I am saying investing 10 minutes to allow the other person to feel heard and comfortable is a smart thing to do.

Go broad before you go narrow

If you have broad performance concerns about the team as a whole, it is useful to share those concerns and explore the other person’s perspective on the team before you focus on them and their performance. This reduces the risk that they feel they are being unfairly singled out, provides them with an opportunity to look at the bigger picture and offers you the chance to get a broader understanding of their perspective.

Of course, if there are no broader team issues then this suggestion won’t be applicable, but in my experience there’s almost always a broader issue that’s worth discussing.

Share your concerns clearly and with specific examples

Performance conversations often go awry when the manager is unable to clearly explain their concerns by drawing on specific examples of performance or behaviour. If you are going to raise a concern, make sure you have some specific concrete examples that you can discuss. Be prepared to identify a situation, talk about the behaviour and discuss the impact. Be ready to explain what your expectations were and why you are not satisfied with what was done (or not done).

 Keep an open mind

Bringing a curious mind-set to a performance conversation will help you stay calm and focused. Rather than going into the conversation certain that you know what needs to be done, try and enter the conversation with a willingness to ask open questions and deepen your understanding. Respectfully ask questions that help you understand how the other person sees the situation. Get to the point where you can see why they believe their perspective is reasonable. You don’t have to agree with their perspective, but it’s very useful to understand where they are coming from.

Listen to what’s being said

Of course it’s no good being curious if you don’t listen to what’s being said. Listening well is actually quite a rare skill and one that only comes with practice. Most people listen with their own agenda in mind, listening for information that will support their interpretation of the world. Good listeners focus on what is being said, listening to the words and observing the non-verbal cues to try and understand what the other person is saying and believes.

If the other person feels you are genuinely interested in what they have to say and giving them a fair hearing, they are far less likely to resort to fight-flight behaviour and the conversation is far more likely to be constructive.

Expect criticism and don’t take things personally

If you are going to have a performance conversation with someone, be prepared to have your own performance put under scrutiny. As noted above, when people are provided with feedback in relation to their performance, it’s common for them to push back. Sometimes the pushback is justified. For example, maybe you haven’t clarified your expectations as well as you could have. Maybe you should have spoken about an issue sooner than you have. Maybe you have been hard to get hold of. It’s important that you own your own behaviour, accept that maybe you are part of the problem and don’t get defensive in the conversation.

Even if you don’t accept the criticism to be fair, be curious about what you are alleged to have done (or not done). For example if someone says “you’re the worst boss I’ve ever had” you might respond: “OK. That’s obviously not something that I want to hear. But what is it that I’m doing that makes you say that?” The key is to stay calm, remain curious and explore. There may be some things you need to acknowledge and there may be things you can do to improve as a manager. By respecting and acknowledging the comment, you can then move on to discuss the things that are concerning you about their performance.

Close the loop

When you are finishing off a performance conversation, it’s important to summarise what’s been discussed and spell out what you have each agreed to do to try and move forward. It’s useful to talk this through before you walk away from the conversation to ensure you have an aligned understanding of what has been said and what is going to be done. It’s smart to send an email summarising this so there is a written record of what has been agreed inviting them to let you know if there is anything they disagree with. This will help to avoid further misunderstandings and give the other person an opportunity to correct the record if they disagree with your written note.


Mark Rosenberg