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About Performance Conversations
Performance Conversations Topics & Tips


Performance Conversations - like pulling teeth

Managing Performance - Dealing with Defensiveness

Difficult Discussions – “They just drops on you”

Avoid, Delay, Attack – Fire!!

Performance Conversation - or is that condemnation?

Performance Conversations - Telling it Straight


Dealing with poor performance is one of the most widely feared species of difficult discussions. It’s tantamount to pulling teeth for most of us... But if it’s painful for you to conduct the conversation, what about the person whose performance is under question?


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In our conversational coaching clinics, we’re often asked about the challenges of talking to people about performance issues. They’re one of the most commonly avoided and widely feared species of difficult discussions. Most of us would rather walk on hot coals than have to conduct a conversation with a low performer.















Real Jagulars are rare in the 7 Acre wood – just as rare as the number of difficult discussions that do just ‘drops’ on you com¬pletely out of the blue.
If we tell ourselves this difficult discussion’s a Jagular we don’t have to face up to or initiate it, when it catches us unprepared. It’s part of that common avoidance syndrome most of us suffer from when it comes to Difficult Discussions…







At what stage do most managers typically intervene when there’s an issue about poor performance? You’d like to think the answer was early on but less than 10% of managers actually do...











Conversations about performance should not correlate to a courtroom conviction – you’re not there to pass sentence…

Articles from CC E-News Issue 13

by Bill Cropper, Director - The Change Forum

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Performance Conversations

“ pulling teeth”

Dealing with poor performance, as most leaders will tell you, is one of the most commonly avoided and widely feared species of difficult discussions. It’s tantamount to pulling teeth for most of us.

In fact, given the choice between having root canal work or conducting a conversation about poor performance, most people we know would choose the former. But wait a minute. Let’s drill down on our dental analogy a bit (ouch – excuse the pun) and see what else we can find. If it’s painful for you to conduct the conversation, what about the other person whose performance is under question?

After all, from their perspective, it’s you who’s doing the dental work.

“Relax, this isn’t going to hurt”, the dentist says. “Sure", you think to yourself. “It’s not going to hurt you – but what about me?” HR people tell us the same thing about performance conversations but most staff still dread them. For them, it is going to hurt – because you’re going to give them some feedback that’s painful, personal and provocative.

“Open-up wide”. Not likely. Many people in performance conversations are in shut-down mode. Why? Because what you’re saying or how you’re saying it is making them feel unsafe – and when people feel unsafe they’re likely to clam up. Helping them to open up by creating a sense of safety in the conversation is one the first things you have to do.

Now let’s talk extraction. In this case, not teeth. Getting people to talk is the first challenge. We need to extract information – and in many performance conversations, you can forget it. The person sits across from us giving one-word answers, sullen looks, huffs or grunts. You momentarily think you’re talking to your teenage son, not one of your team members!

Confronted by this, most of us now commit the cardinal error: we take control of the conversation and find ourselves doing all the talking. We’re back at the dentist’s again. Have you ever noticed dentists can happily conduct a one-way conversation while they’ve got our mouths filled with drills and other toothy-tools?

You want them to tell you what’s going on. You want to get to the root (oops, here I go again) of this performance problem and the obstacles getting in the way of correcting it. To do that, you have to put aside the temptation most of us have to lead the conversation and let them do most of the talking. No matter how clearly you put forth your perspective of the problem you see in their performance, if you control the conversation it becomes a one-way, “let me tell you what’s wrong with you” monologue. You shut-down, not open up, the conversation. People sit there – even agreeing with you – knowing there’s other angles about this you don’t seem interested in knowing about.

Painless performance conversations may not be entirely possible – though some leaders I’m sure would like a supply of anaesthetics handy! So next time you’re in the dentist chair, why not distract yourself constructively by thinking of how you can handle your next poor performance conversation differently…

Copyright © Bill Cropper 2011                                  Download Article                                 Download CC E-News Issue-13


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Managing Performance...

Dealing with Defensiveness

Organisations spend thousands on performance management programs, training and systems software but in the end many managers play Hamlet and still procrastinate, sidestep or totally avoid having conversations with low performers.

Even the most seasoned managers can come up with a multitude of excuses for avoiding or delaying a difficult performance conversation. Here’s a few we most commonly hear:


They’re retiring, leaving or transferring soon – so the problem will fix itself


Saying something to them will only make things worse


It will only de-motivate them or make them more hard to get along with


I don't think they’ll change no matter what I say or do


I’m frightened of how they’ll react or what they’ll do


This person has a lot of influence – they can make things difficult for me


I have a pretty good relationship with this person and I don’t want to upset that


I’m concerned they’ll lodge a grievance or complaint against me


I don't know what to say – I hate dealing with conflict


Maybe they’ll pick up on my subtle hints and start doing the right thing


I don't know what the solution to this performance issue is


Their performance is good in others areas – so on balance I’ll just ignore this bit


Any of these sound familiar? Of course, you can’t let poor performance go and here’s the main reason: it’s simply not fair to others on your team who are performing well or doing the right thing. They see you turning a blind-eye. They feel it’s not fair or consistent. They lose respect for you as a leader. Sometimes they’ll even slack-off too in silent protest.

Why do so many managers stall when it comes to difficult performance conversations? It’s certainly not identifying the performance issue that’s the obstacle. Everyone in your team can usually tell you about that.

The number one barrier is the fear of raising defensiveness and then a fear of being unable to manage it that puts off a lot of people. Giving hard feedback to people where their reaction is likely to be emotionally volatile and the conversational course you chart unpredictable, is certainly no walk-in-the-park – more like mucking about in a mine-field.

Recurring confrontations between managers and team members, where defensiveness on both sides runs high is discomfiting. So it becomes easier to just avoid addressing performance issue altogether. When it comes down to it, there’s no real mystery as to why managers tend to steer clear of hard talks and why staff don't like being on the receiving end of hard feedback either!

You’ll probably have few difficult performance conversations that are defensiveness-free. As we say in our clinics, if you don’t encounter at least some defensiveness, you’re discussion is probably not all that difficult.

Learning conversational and feeling-control techniques like those we cover in our Emotional Intelligence and Difficult Discussions clinics, to manage your defensiveness and defuse or minimise it in others, can help create a safe climate for more positive performance conversations.

Article extracted from The Change Forum's Conversational Coaching E-News Issue-13

Copyright © Bill Cropper 2011

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Difficult Discussions...

“They just drops on you”

At the start of our Difficult Discussions clinics, someone always says you can’t prepare for this kind of conversation. “They take you completely by surprise – they just drop on you out of nowhere and there’s little you can do about that,” they say with a note of certainty.

“It’s true,” I say. “Some difficult discussions are like Jagulars – they just drops on you.” AA Milne devotees look quizzical at this point. What’s the connection, they’re thinking?

Well, in Chapter IV of ‘The House at Pooh Corner’, impulsive Tigger, egged on by derring-do Roo to display his tree-climbing prowess, gets them both stuck up a very large pine-tree. Luckily, Winnie and Piglet on one of their adventurous ‘expotitions’ overhear the embarrassed yells for help.

"Look Pooh!" said Piglet. "There's something in one of the Pine Trees." "So there is!" said Pooh. "There's an Animal." "Is it One of the Fiercer Animals?" he said. Pooh nodded. "It's a Jagular," he said. "What do Jagulars do?" asked Piglet, hoping they wouldn't. "They hide in trees and call 'Help! Help!' and then when you look up as you go underneath, they drops on you," said Pooh. "I'm looking down," cried Piglet loudly.

Real Jagulars are rare in the 7 Acre Wood – just as rare as the real number of difficult discussions that actually do just ‘drops’ on you completely out of the blue. We like to say they do. Yet a lot of the time, I suspect – and this is only a suspicion (to put it in Pooh-speak), that this is more a story we tell ourselves to cover up that deep-down feeling that we knew this was coming (we were just hoping it wouldn’t!) – that we’ve been avoiding this difficult discussion, hoping it wouldn’t drop on us (which it will), willing the issue to go away (which it usually won’t), trusting that troublesome person will change without us having to say anything (which they probably won’t) or that tricky issue will magically resolve itself and go away all of its own accord (as if!).

It’s all part of that common avoidance syndrome most of us suffer from when it comes to difficult discussions. If we tell ourselves this difficult discussion was a Jagular, we don’t have to face up to or initiate it, when it catches us unprepared and we trip over our own tongues trying to retreat from it. We have the “took-me-totally-by-surprise” excuse to fall back on – even though we know deep-down something like this was bound to come up and we should have been more alert and better prepared to deal with it in the first place.

Sure, there are real Jagulars out there in that conversational jungle – they’re just not as numerous and well-concealed as we’d like to think. So be alert, pay attention to your instincts that tell you something’s lurking overhead. “Look up! Not down” and prepare ahead for that difficult discussion. (See our article on Preparing for Performance Conversations in Issue-13 of our CC E-News).

Article extracted from The Change Forum's Conversational Coaching E-News Issue-13

Copyright © Bill Cropper 2011

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Avoid, Delay, Attack – Fire!


At what stage do most managers typically intervene when there’s an issue about poor performance?  You’d like to think the answer was early on to nip a downward performance trend in the bud. Or at least you’d expect it to be when a pattern begins to become noticeable....

But that’s not the case according to a survey report I came across recently. The trend seems to be that less than 10% of managers tackle a performance issue early-on or as soon as it arises by having an informal conversation to correct or coach.

50% tend to wait for a known pattern to develop and sometimes worryingly, they admit this can equate to months and even years! But wait – this is the really scary bit. Around 40% of managers wait until they are ready to fire the person (or at least feel like it) before having a performance conversation. Talk about horses, gates and bolting! Of course we know you as a manager fit into the first 10%.


You clearly and consistently communicate what the standards are and what a good performance looks like so there’s common understanding amongst all your team


You don’t put things aside until the annual or bi-yearly performance review, which at least in my experience, no matter how hard HR sells it, people don’t put a lot of stock in – including many managers and leaders.


You know that difficult feedback in small doses is better than a massive injection during a put-off performance conversation where you’re fed up!


And you avoid all this anyway by taking a coaching approach to leadership! You have regular coaching conversations with your team because you know prevention and potential-building is better than curing performance problems once they develop.


But imagine the anxiety or even blissful ignorance of those who have a 40% manager? Maybe they even thought they were doing an OK job right up until the fan colliding with proverbial excrement!

I’d want to hope my leader was in one of the other percentiles. For all the glitzy performance-review instrumentation and other bling, nothing replaces a good relationship where people can sit down face-to-face and talk over what’s going on.


Article extracted from The Change Forum's Conversational Coaching E-News Issue-13

Copyright © Bill Cropper 2011

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Performance Conversation...

 or is that condemnation?

When it comes to tackling poor performance, most managers have been trained to prepare a bullet-proof brief listing all the charges relating to an employee's infractions, infringements and inabilities – with dates, times and facts to back it up.

After all, you have to prove them guilty of under-performing beyond the shadow of a doubt. It’s what we see those TV lawyers do in courtroom dramas and it always seems to work for them…

Trouble is, most leaders are not lawyers, far less judges. A performance conversation shouldn’t correlate to a courtroom conviction and you’re not there to pass sentence. Sure getting your facts straight is important – but so is how you use them. Many discussions about poor performance quickly turn from constructive conversation into condemnation.

Confronted with an iron-clad list of their sins and shortcomings (and in their view, little chance of getting a fair-hearing) many employees feel accused. Their natural response is to defend themselves. They blame others, fixate on or argue over the details, make excuses, dispute the details as incorrect or accuse you of not managing them properly.

All too often, from an employee's point of view, when a manager starts a performance discussion, it sounds to them like finger-pointing, fault-finding, coercive or disciplinary.

The traditional approach to giving feedback often comes across in a harsh, "let me tell you what’s wrong with you" tone. Poorly crafted, clumsily-delivered messages trigger feelings of self-doubt, confusion, indignation or even worthlessness. This is particularly true if this is the first time they’ve even heard about the issue you have with their performance.

What’s the answer? Try to make your performance conversations more judgement-free.

Judgement’s when you sneak in (often unwittingly) your own opinions, beliefs, preferences or conclusions. They come out in words and phrases like “careless”, “lacking in...” or “incapable of....” Even the word "poor", which we throw around willy-nilly in the workplace, implies a value judgment on the person, rather than an objective assessment of their work. Using words like these throws up enormous obstacles to resolving performance issues and are certain to raise the temperature of any performance conversation.

So why not whisk-away the wig, down the gown, stop judging and just be curious. As soon as condemnation comes into it, the person on the receiving end gets defensive, so any hope of achieving anything that remotely resembles a productive outcome will simply evaporate. The case gets closed or suspended – pending a further hearing!


Article extracted from The Change Forum's Conversational Coaching E-News Issue-13

Copyright © Bill Cropper 2011

More Articles and tips on the subject of difficult performance conversations in Issue-13 of our CC E-News...


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