How to hold a better performance improvement conversation

How to Hold a Better Performance Improvement Conversation

Has this ever happened to you? You sit down for an earnest performance improvement conversation. Your employee listens intently. She thanks you for the feedback, and promises to try harder.

Things improve for a minute. But a week later, they’re back to all the same behaviors.

You’re frustrated, and with good reason.  You may feel the urge to take it personally or write them off as a lost cause. But don’t lose hope yet.

Try these questions to take your performance improvement conversation to the next level.

Center Your Performance Improvement Conversation Around These Four Questions

First, take a minute to reflect on the feedback and accountability conversations you’ve had so far.  Our I.N.S.P.I.R.E. model for accountability conversations (right) can help. You can read more about that in our Fast Company article here.

After that, ask yourself these questions.

INSPIRE meting for tough conversations

1. Clarity: Do they really know what success looks like?

One good conversation about expectations can prevent fourteen “Why didn’t you?” conversations.

Ask them to describe what success looks like in their role, in terms of metrics and specific behaviors.

If you find that you haven’t been clear, here’s how you can reset your expectations.

Be as specific as possible. Avoid generic phrases like: “A positive attitude,” “More customer focus,” and “Be more strategic.”  Translate those into tangible, measurable behaviors.

If this feels hard, imagine you took out your phone and took a video of what successful actions and behaviors look like (of course, don’t actually do this), but you get the idea.

2. Conflicts: Where are they stuck?

Listen closely. It’s easy to discount the “reasons” they can’t improve: overwhelm; competing priorities; mixed messages; frustrating peers; difficult customers …

Some of this may feel like excuses. But, underneath that emotion and deflection, may lay your breakthrough opportunity to help them improve.

And if you can help them find a breakthrough, don’t forget to look for opportunities to see if the rest of the team needs more help in this area too.

3. Confidence: Do they believe they can do it?

Okay, here comes the hard part.

If you don’t think they can get there from here, they will see that lack of confidence a mile away.

First, do a gut check. Are you giving them the benefit of the doubt? Do you believe this is possible? (If not, be sure you’re documenting the situation carefully and involving HR.)

But if you are coming from a place of “Yes you can,” be clear on why. Show them examples of how they’ve done this before. Break down the goals into bite-size behaviors. Start small and be impressed.

4. Conviction: Are they committed to making the change?

If this is the challenge, start by asking questions.

Why do they choose to work here?

What makes “here” feel great?

Connect what you’re asking of her to why it matters to the company and to them.

Holding successful performance improvement conversations takes practice. Consistent focus on these four areas will help you get to the root cause of the issue more quickly.

And of course asking, “What else can I do to be most helpful?” is always important. And then, really listen to what she has to say.

Your turn

What are the most important questions to ask when holding a performance improvement discussion?

Posted in Winning Well and tagged , .

Karin Hurt and David Dye

Karin Hurt and David Dye help human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. As CEO and President of Let’s Grow Leaders, they are known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. Karin and David are the award-winning authors of five books including, Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. David Dye is a former executive and elected official. Karin and David are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells - building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. In the first question when asking for clarity tie a measurable skill to the behavior on which they can set goals and see improvement. For example more customer focus could be defined as frequent follow up calls for maintaining the relationship during COVID. The skill can be around prioritization, managing time and value based follow up calls that have a defined purpose, assigned process and payoff for the client that makes the call and subsequent calls of value and worth their time. The sales result being more referrals/testimonials. Great article. The questions allow the manager to keep development conversations on the table with frequency not just once or twice per year

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