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Avoid Awkward Performance Discussions

Updated: Apr 9, 2023

“Don’t hold anyone to an expectation unless you have stated to them what that expectation is.”

Guess who said that? My mom.

It is probably one of her best because it applies in nearly every aspect of life. She typically offered this gem within the context of relationships. It usually involved me complaining about a roommate or a boyfriend because they weren’t doing something I wanted them to do. She almost always followed that complaint with “Well, do they know what you’re expecting?”

My lack of maturity boiled over with “They should just know. It’s common sense.” Or “I shouldn’t have to ask. I want them to want to do the dishes.”

I now know well that common sense is relative and who wants to do the dishes?

Being clear on expectations is not only important in relationships but it is also a foundational component leadership and one of the toughest aspects of leading a team is discussing performance.

The conversations are tough because often they are reserved for only talking about poor performance or when someone has missed the mark. The good news is that these awkward discussions can be avoided entirely by employing three simple techniques.

Provide clear expectations

Achieving high performance is largely based on clear expectations. For a short time, I was a Human Resources Generalist responsible for counseling managers on employee relations issues. Frequently, I would get this call: “I need to put Jan on corrective action. She isn’t performing, hasn’t been for a while, and she needs to be disciplined. What do I do?”

I would ask, “Tell me about how you set performance expectations for Jan and what is Jan’s understanding of what is expected of her?”

Often, I found it was not a disciplinary issue at all, rather a miscommunication of expectations.

Way before there is a need to give any sort of corrective feedback there needs to be a discussion of expectations. Ideally, this happens within the first 30 days of starting a new job and continues throughout the work experience. It is not enough to assume that everyone knows what is expected of them based on the job description.

In the beginning, it is important to be explicit. For example, if you expect every meeting your team organizes starts and ends on time, has an agenda, and includes a note-taker, then say that. While running a meeting like this may be "common sense" for some, it likely will not be for all.

To ensure that performance kicks off in the right direction and to reduce the need for uncomfortable corrective feedback, be explicit with expectations from the start.

Conduct routine and expected check-ins

Once expectations are clearly set, they must be revisited regularly. There are so many benefits to routine check-ins, it is no wonder they are a leadership best practice.

This is not a leadership “drive-by” when the boss stops by your desk or texts you “How’s everything going?” While this can be valuable, most people need time to think about what is most important to address with their boss. The “drive-by” does not allow for that.

Rather, this is scheduled time dedicated to the boss and employee discussing what is going well, what is not, and any support that may be needed. Performance will naturally weave its way into the conversations.

There is no specific timing recommended, it will depend on the team and their needs. As an Operations Chief, I had 17 direct reports. I met monthly with 7 of them. I met twice a month with 6, and weekly with the remaining 4. This was driven by the tenure of the employee (new employees I met with more frequently) as well as the type of work performed.

The responsibility was on the direct report to schedule these and ensure the meetings were on calendar. I did not spend any time scheduling check-ins for 17 people nor do I recommend any leader do that.

The greatest benefit of having these meetings is the annual performance review was a breeze. Because we met routinely, I didn’t have to wrack my brain or scour past emails to remember successes and I never dreaded giving corrective feedback in a review because it had already been addressed in a past check-in.

Discussion of performance is not a once in while conversation. Rather, it is a routine activity centered on expectations.

Allow for Self-evaluation First

About 20 years ago I worked on a high-performing learning and development team. We routinely practiced our training delivery and facilitation skills in front of each other. We assessed everything from gestures and vocal tone to how to initiate discussions. Our boss was an expert public speaker and learning facilitator. I was more nervous to deliver training in front of her and my peers than anyone else at the company.

These activities of practicing in front of the team occurred quarterly. At the conclusion of our session, we evaluated ourselves first. Our boss called it “P’s and C’s”. We first shared our “positives” and then shared our personal “critiques.” The exercise was valuable because it challenged us to recognize our strengths and what we did well first. Then, we were able to critique ourselves before anyone else could. Often, I knew when I wasn’t my best and was able to address it before anyone else did. This put the power of continuous improvement in my own hands.

Back then, I didn’t know there was neuroscience to back-up why self-evaluations are an effective approach for performance discussions.

David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute published the SCARF Model: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. In short, this model describes an approach for collaborating with others while leveraging our brain’s natural approach/avoid response.

When we have positive interactions, it triggers our brain to initiate an approach or collaboration response. We want to continue to be a part of positive interactions. When we have negative exchanges, the opposite occurs. We want to avoid them.

To no surprise, performance evaluations trigger an avoid response. It is inherently threatening to hear someone’s evaluation of us. It compromises how we see our status as a professional. We all view our work as an integral part of our status on the team. David Rock writes “If leaders want to change others’ behavior, more attention must be paid to reducing status threats when giving feedback. One way to do this is by allowing people to give themselves feedback on their own performance.”

To increase the chances of having a productive performance discussion, start with a self-evaluation.

By having clear expectations, routine check-ins, and self-evaluations, performance discussions become a lot less threatening and certainly less awkward. You do not need to be the boss either to institute these activities. Apply these strategies to teamwork and you will build better relationships but also get better results.

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Until next time!


Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.

Start advancing your performance today! Check out Productivity Training for Professionals or Leadership Training for Professionals from GPC Academy, the online training service of Growth Partners Consulting.


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