Engaging performance conversations: Leadership Essentials (Part 6)

Formulaic, time-consuming and demotivating, is it any wonder two-thirds of organisations feel the current approach to appraisals is in need of review? The bureaucracy and tedium surrounding existing processes has driven high-profile management consultancies and leading brands – such as Deloitte and Adobe – to stop using traditional appraisals altogether.

It is beyond doubt that appraisals are a disheartening experience for many managers and employees. A heavy emphasis on negative feedback means managers spend a significant amount of time criticising employees, leaving staff feeling under-valued and demotivated. Many managers   dread the process, as they fear employees will have a negative reaction to particular feedback. Yet appraisals have the potential to inspire excellence by positively stretching people to optimise their strengths, reduce performance risks and achieve beyond what they thought was possible.

So, what is the true value of performance conversations and how can managers banish appraisal dread for both themselves and their employees?


  1. Embrace the rule of three for setting goals

With too many tasks to focus their attention on, employees can rapidly reach burnout and fall into the deficit trap. Yet this scenario can easily be avoided by managing priorities efficiently — setting no more than three goals for each individual to complete over a three-month period in what we call the “3 x 3” approach to goal-setting.

Aligning goal-setting with the purpose and overall goals of the company is vital to ensure people have a clearer sense of meaning and understand how they will be making a valuable contribution to the purpose of the organisation.

Flexibility is paramount and managers should be careful to ensure goals are changed when business realities and market conditions shift. Irrelevant goals serve little purpose other than to distract so regular check-ins are crucial to review and, where necessary, adapt goals and priorities.

Finally, goal-setting should take account of the performance and passion of your people and should ‘stretch’ people – particularly your A-players – beyond their ‘zone of comfort’. Goals that are too easy will result in complacency and mediocre performance whilst those that are too difficult can lead to frustration and panic.

  1. Abandon the outdated ‘sandwich approach’

The sandwich approach has been acknowledged as the go-to appraisal format for human resources and managers for decades. Intended to soften the impact of negative feedback by placing it between a positive opening and closing statement, all this method actually does is shift employee attention to the wrong performance areas. Strong performers will often focus on the negative aspects of the message and leave their appraisal demotivated about the areas where they need to improve. Poor performers, however, will choose to acknowledge only the positive feedback and leave their appraisal with an inaccurate view of their current level of achievement.

For steady or top performers, ensure your performance conversations are focused on strengths and on future performance rather than weaknesses and previous performance if you want to motivate them and accelerate performance.

For under-performers, be honest and direct so they understand the specific areas in which they are under-performing. Ensure you remain constructive and supportive whilst at the same time communicating what they need to improve or do differently to meet expectations.

  1. Emphasise strengths to boost development

The typical appraisal is focused heavily on looking at past activity to gauge levels of performance and views weaknesses as the major focus for development. Unsurprisingly, this technique has a tendency to undermine efforts to enhance performance and motivation. To facilitate progression, appraisals must emphasize the factors that energise and inspire individuals — their strengths and successes.

For employees who meet or exceed acceptable performance standards, strengths-based appraisals can generate impressive results. According to a 2005 Corporate Leadership Council study involving 135 organisations, focusing on personality and performance strengths during performance conversations boosted performance by nearly 40%*.

To implement this approach, managers need to become workplace energisers rather than critical judges, and employees must be empowered to shape their future by highlighting what they can achieve with support and coaching.

By asking the following coaching questions during regular check-ins, you will encourage a forward thinking and solutions focus:

  1. What do you think you’ve done particularly well?
  2. What have been the most energising aspects of the job? And the least energising?
  3. What would you like to learn to optimise your strengths and performance?
  4. What are your challenges or blockers? What can you do to address these?
  5. What ideas and solutions do you have to help deliver your/team’s goals?
  1. Take a realistic stance on weaknesses

A focus on strengths does not mean poor performance should be overlooked. In fact, a strengths-based approach to appraisals can help overcome weaker areas more effectively, as managers and staff consider ways to deal with overdone strengths – strengths used in the wrong way or at the wrong time – which undermine performance. For example, attention to detail can become perfectionism and self-confidence can become arrogance. These overdone strengths are frequently the most important source of performance shortfalls and correcting them can result in big performance gains. Considering ways to use strengths to overcome weaker areas and other performance blockers can also reduce defensiveness, and promote creative techniques to deal with stubborn weaknesses. For example, it may be useful for team members to collaborate with others in their department who have the strengths they lack.

Appraisals for individuals who fall short of acceptable standards must highlight areas where development is required and agree actions for improvement. Mistakes should also be treated as a learning opportunity rather than a punishable offence, thereby fostering an environment of transparency, where employees are motivated to learn and overcome challenges.

It is, however, important to acknowledge that vulnerabilities are often integral to an individual’s personality and unlikely to change. Though neuroscience research has demonstrated that behaviours can be altered, attempting to embed a new skill when an individual does not have the base potential or inclination will not be successful.

Organisations should match individuals with roles that suit their natural strengths by pairing individuals with others who possess complementary skills or by using performance software solutions that reduce the impact of weaknesses.

  1. The importance of feedback…and lots of it 

In the same way that sports people need objective and robust feedback to improve and typically get this from multiple sources (coaches, physios, cameras, fellow athletes, etc.) employees too require high quality feedback in order to learn and improve. This should be provided by not only yourself, but also from co-workers, customers and other important stakeholders who have an opportunity to observe the person’s performance. There are a growing number of apps and tech platforms that can help the person access real-time co-worker feedback, however, more basic email-driven processes can do an equally good job. We always suggest the employee (or manager) collects the following feedback on their performance before quarterly check-ins or at the end of critical projects:

  • What have I done particularly well?
  • What specific actions will help improve my relationships?
  • What specific actions will help improve my performance?

Employees should also be encouraged to collect feedback at any time and to offer others unprompted feedback, either informally or using a more formal technology-based process.

  1. Deal swiftly with stubborn performance problems

The biggest mistake we see managers make when managing performance is to avoid or deal indecisively with performance problems that clearly aren’t going away.

Through open and honest conversations, managers should diagnose whether an under-performer can be turned round and if not, should work with HR to bring the problem to a swift resolution using the company’s relevant policies and procedures.

A brief overview of the process we recommend is outlined below:



To replace the dread of appraisals with motivating performance conversations, managers should set high performance standards and enable people to discover and optimise their strengths and full potential. This requires adopting the role and mindset of a ‘workplace energiser’ and practising agile goal-setting, regular coaching conversations, high quality feedback, positive stretch and where necessary, swift and decisive management of under-performers.

James Brook

*Corporate Leadership Council (2005). Improving Talent Management Outcomes Research Paper.