What Is Performance Feedback? How to Have Peformance Development & Management Conversations

By Paul Fayad, co-founder of ELM Learning and Positive Leader. Paul has extensively implemented Radical Candor principles both within his company and leadership workshops, witnessing profound improvements in communication and feedback dynamics

I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but the professional landscape has changed drastically in the last four years. We’ve traded the conference room with the home office and worked harder on striking the right work-life balance. 

And, while it’s definitely had a positive impact on how we commute, there has been a drastic change in how we communicate (or fail to communicate) performance feedback.

What Is Performance Feedback? How to Have Peformance Development & Management Conversations What Is Performance Feedback?,performance feedback

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What is Performance Feedback?

What is Performance Feedback?   

On the Radical Candor podcast, hosts Kim, Jason, and Amy discuss the importance of aligning how you develop the skills of the people in your organization (performance development) and how you think about
performance management

They explain that it is a manager’s job to both help each person on their team develop and grow in their career and transparently assess each person’s performance, commonly called performance management. 

These two things together make up performance feedback with performance development happening in informal conversations and performance management being a structured process that can incur consequences.

The art of the performance management conversation isn’t new; good leaders have been tackling tough topics since the dawn of time. Still, even as business becomes more flexible and self-aware, I’ve noticed a certain reluctance in having more formal, performance management conversations. 

As we’ve become more familiar with the casual workplace and all that it entails, that same comfort level has bred a reticence (both for managers and employees) to progress past the in-the-moment corrections and reminders. 

And, while the impromptu performance development conversation is the backbone of a healthy work culture, we can’t discount the impact of a solid, clear, and collaborative performance management conversation.

Whether it’s a safety protocol, a specific process, a team issue, or any mark that’s being missed after correction, it’s time to utilize a performance management conversation to clarify and refine what you need from your employees—and solicit feedback about what you could be doing better. 

In order to effectively develop your team and improve team performance, feedback must include both development and management conversations.

Performance Feedback Isn’t Always Comfortable

One of the biggest shifts I’ve seen in the workplace is the idea of personal comfort as a component of a healthy and desirable environment. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to foster an environment where employees feel safe, valued, and empowered. 

Somehow, in the quest to create that positive culture, any discomfort experienced by an individual is seen as purely negative. 

This desire for creating comfort stems from good intentions but often becomes a bit of a snake eating its own tail: In softening their communication to avoid causing discomfort, managers are reluctant to broach difficult topics or give criticism. 

This is Ruinous Empathy, and this kind of too-nice work environment can be just as toxic as one that relies on brutal honesty.

Employees become complacent or rely on incorrect, outdated, or unsafe practices, and managers are left feeling frustrated and resentful. The cycle continues and what was once a pursuit of positivity causes a scenario where even good employees continue doing the wrong thing, leaving managers to pick up the slack. 

Naturally, employees should feel physically and psychologically safe at work. The idea, however, that communication and feedback should be a completely comfortable experience is about as outdated as Windows 95. 

The truth is that some conversations are uncomfortable; that discomfort is a sign of learning, growth, and change. It’s a matter of structuring those interactions properly so that, while they might be a little awkward or uncomfortable, they still achieve a positive result.

I like to call this “gain framing”: Using performance management conversations to show employees stand to gain when they seek solutions. 

It’s not an evaluation, it’s a performance feedback plan.

Download our performance development guide >>

Performance Feedback: Conversations vs. Consequences

What Is Performance Feedback? How to Have Peformance Development & Management Conversations What Is Performance Feedback?,performance feedback

In a perfect world, regular, candid performance development conversations would be all you need to run at peak performance all the time. I can come up with infinite scenarios, however, when a simple reminder or on-the-spot feedback simply isn’t enough to change thinking and behavior. 

One of the most valuable lessons about performance feedback you can learn as a leader is to identify the tipping point between impromptu feedback and development and structured performance management conversations. 

Good managers offer performance development feedback daily. It’s their job to show everyone what good looks like and remove the barriers between employees and their success. Therefore, the candid conversation isn’t “Why are you doing this wrong?” but “What’s stopping you from being successful?” 

This can be done in a casual setting, where a quick reframing of the process corrects behavior and you can move on with your day.

When the wrong actions happen again and again, it’s time to switch your performance feedback to a performance management conversation pathway. That’s because the employee is now choosing to do it, even after you’ve offered feedback, job description reminders, advice, solutions, and even highlighted their own gain. 

Employees do this for any number of reasons, from simply not understanding the importance of a policy, unclear expectations or directions, or because they don’t want to accept the accountability for making a mistake. Whatever the reason, it’s now up to you to have an honest, clear, and yes, sometimes even uncomfortable, performance management conversation.

How to Have a Performance Management Conversation

Imagine you work in a restaurant. When assigned to closing, one of the kitchen staff members needs to work through a safety checklist for shutting down equipment and mopping the floors. It’s clear that those duties are part of their job description. 

One morning, you notice that they haven’t worked through the safety checklist and an oven’s been left on. Everyone makes mistakes; you let them know and reiterate the importance of following the safety protocols in a quick conversation before their shift starts. 

A couple of days later, the floor hasn’t been mopped. The morning staff can’t start working until it’s done and it sets them back by 30 minutes. Again, you alert the employee and offer a solution, like having another employee check their list for completion before they clock out. 

You’ve addressed the problem a few times candidly and while working shoulder-to-shoulder with this employee to get them to where they need to be, but it keeps happening. They’re skipping items on their list and it’s causing safety issues and affecting the way other employees fulfill their duties. 

It’s time to have a performance management conversation. With this scenario in mind, consider some of these best practices when planning, executing, and documenting your communication.

Download our performance review guide >>

Alert the Employee

Performance management conversations, like performance reviews, should never be a surprise for the employee. Either it’s a scheduled event (a monthly check-in, for example) or they’ve been notified of an issue via casual conversation. 

If it is a shock to them, it’s as much a manager communication issue as it is an employee not meeting expectations. When alerting the employee, you can minimize discomfort and anxiety by doing it privately and limiting the disruption the conversation has to the regular flow of work. 

No one’s being sent to the principal’s office to a chorus of middle school “Ooh’s.” You’re giving the employee a quick and discreet heads-up after you’ve communicated about an ongoing issue. 

Plan Ahead

A performance management conversation is not the time to fly by the seat of your pants. It’s clear and it’s planned. If you’re unsure how to approach an issue, let HR know ahead of time and ask for feedback on your conversation outline. 

If you plan to put the employee on a performance improvement plan, make sure that the success metrics are challenging yet achievable. The plan should be written in a way that allows them to address the issue within a specific timeframe.

Stay on Topic (And Skip the Sandwich) 


@mrjacobespi The feedback sandwich is 🚯 #greenscreen #leadershipdevelopment #newmanagerbasics #managertips #feedbacksandwich #leadershipcoach #agencyowner ♬ original sound – Jacob Espinoza

If your goal is to offer a learning opportunity, keep the conversation focused on that. One popular method of giving performance feedback is the “sandwich method,” where you surround negative feedback or correction with something positive. 

It sounds nice, but it can be a confusing way to communicate and lead to misunderstanding. When you tell someone that they’re great at their job but not meeting expectations, what are you trying to say? 

Focus your performance feedback on the behavior that needs to be corrected and use the CORE method to outline the context, your observation, the result, and the next steps that should be taken. 

Ask the Right Questions

The Importance of Communication in the Workplace

Seek to understand your employee. Asking the right questions can help give you insight into why an employee isn’t meeting your expectations. 

When you confront an employee with accusatory questions that have clear yes or no answers, it triggers the amygdala. Questions like “Did you do this?” or “Isn’t this part of your job?” activate the amygdala, which is responsible for linking emotion with reaction, leading to a strong fight-or-flight response.

Employees feel attacked or upset and make decisions based on their emotions. They’ll become defensive or shut down, both of which result in a hostile learning environment. 

Conversely, asking straightforward and open-ended questions helps to activate the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for executive function, attention, and changing behavior and habits. Instead of telling your employee’s brain to be on guard, you’re demonstrating understanding and a desire to help. Consider questions like:

  • What’s going on?
  • How can I help you succeed?
  • What should we be doing?
  • Is there something standing in your way?
  • Do you understand? Do you agree?

When your employee answers, listen with the intent to understand. Ask for them to elaborate or clarify anything you don’t understand. 

Avoid interrupting and remember that you aren’t just writing someone up or correcting their behavior, but using this time as an opportunity to learn. Only then can you work together to discuss possible solutions. Working together to find solutions will also help strengthen workplace relationships.

While working in management at a hospital, one of my employees had a repeat history of coming in late for her shift. I had reminded her a couple of times in a casual setting but it was clear nothing was changing and I needed to schedule an opportunity for performance improvement. 

During the meeting (and after some careful questioning), she shared with me that the public transportation she used to travel to work was unreliable; it was often late.

Once I realized the real reason behind the issue (and the fact that it wasn’t her fault), the solution was easily remedied by switching her to a different shift that gave her more time and options for travel. 

Document the Process

Once you’ve finished your conversation, it’s always a good idea to get documentation to create a paper trail and ensure you’re on the same page. If it’s a write-up, file it with HR. If you don’t have an official policy or form, have your employee sign a document that details the solution and their next steps. 

If your employee is reluctant to sign anything, it’s worth reminding them that the document is not ammunition but acknowledgment. They’re simply agreeing that you’ve had the conversation and you agree on the solution. 

It’s the ideal time to weed out any potential misunderstandings and clarify what will happen if the employee still can’t fulfill their role.

Performance Feedback Next Steps

effective 1-on-1 meetings

Let’s circle back to that food service example: Perhaps they’ve shared that they feel like they don’t have enough time to complete all their checklist items by the end of their shift. 

They’ve been helping other kitchen staff and have to rush through closing duties to be finished in time. You realize that their actions haven’t been malicious. As you listen and learn, you show your employees that you care about them personally, and you’re able to come up with a solution: At a certain time each night, they stop all other kitchen duties and only focus on the closing checklist, and, as the manager, you’ll notify the other kitchen staff of the change in protocol. 

You both know what you need to do next and commit to the solution. Notice that the job description hasn’t changed: The employee still has the same responsibilities. 

As the leader, however, you’re able to set the tone for future interactions and provide clear expectations along with that solution. It might have been a little awkward and uncomfortable, but it was a conversation worth having. 

By approaching it as a learning experience, both you and your employee have a chance to grow. And, maybe next time, they’ll feel comfortable bringing up concerns before they become bigger issues. 

With an effective performance feedback process, learning comes first and growth can’t help but follow after.

What Is Performance Feedback? How to Have Peformance Development & Management Conversations What Is Performance Feedback?,performance feedback Paul Fayad, co-founder of  Positive Leader, has had a successful 22-year career as CEO and president for HHA Services. He has produced over 70 industry training videos, spoken at more than 20 conferences, and led seminars for over 50 healthcare centers and corporations in the U.S. and has lectured at colleges and universities in the U.S., Canada, and Hong Kong. In 1997, he pioneered a hiring process based on candidates’ personalities and customer service skills. In 2013, he co-founded ELM Learning, a company dedicated to reshaping corporate training. Besides his work, Paul is actively involved in various charitable organizations and teaches courses on leadership and personal growth.

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