how to lead a performance conversation without losing your cool

How to Lead a Performance Conversation without Losing Your Cool

Leaders play a vital role in employee development and that includes sharing developmental feedback. But an effective performance conversation requires an even temper. Keep these five principles in mind to help you keep your cool.

We’d just finished a live online leadership discussion about tough conversations when a private chat message appeared from one participant.

“How can I have these performance conversations without getting angry? I get so frustrated at people who I think should know better or say they will change, but don’t. Any suggestions?”

It’s a frequent question we hear from leaders. If you feel frustrated, angry, or exasperated with a team member, you’re not alone.

But I love this question because the person asking it recognizes that approaching these conversations with that anger or frustration won’t work. You might get temporary compliance, but the other person hasn’t grown, they’re just placating your anger.

Why Are You Upset?

Before you try to talk with your team member, it can help to understand why you feel the way you do.

Frustration is normal. You want the situation to be one way, but it’s not. That frustration often turns into anger because of the way you interpret what’s happening.

Anger is a normal response when we feel threatened. So what makes you feel threatened by the need to have a performance conversation?

The first common reason is that the employee’s failure becomes personal—we perceive it as disrespect or an attack.

The second reason people often get angry at an employee’s poor performance is that it threatens our performance, which, in turn, can threaten our sense of achievement, the impact we make in the world, or even our livelihood.

Thoughts like these are a sign you’re feeling threatened:

  • “How could they treat me like this?”
  • “What were they thinking?”
  • “How could they do this—again?”
  • “They’ve got to know what this is doing to the team—to our numbers. What’s wrong with them?”

Now what? How can you deal with this frustration and resulting anger without damaging the relationship or preventing the employee’s growth?

How to Manage Your Emotions for a Productive Performance Conversation 

1. Depersonalize their behavior.

The first step to keeping your cool is to remove the threat. You do this by reframing what’s happening.

Yes, they showed up late. They failed to document the account. Or they didn’t do what they said they would.

They did it, but they didn’t do it to you. What happened isn’t about you. There is almost zero chance that your team member woke up that morning asking themselves, “How can I really aggravate my boss today?”

They didn’t wake up thinking “How can I tick off my boss today?”

The person you’re talking to is doing the best they can to get through life. Maybe they don’t know what’s important. Perhaps they don’t know how to do it. Maybe they know, but don’t want to. You can help with those things, but none of them is an attack.

Depersonalize by recognizing that it’s not about you. The conversation is about how you can help them to succeed.

2. Prepare for the conversation.

Once you’ve reframed the conversation and your role, use a tool like the I.N.S.P.I.R.E. Method to plan the conversation. Be sure to focus on observable behaviors, invite them to dialog, and schedule a follow-up.

Having a good plan will help you manage your emotions in the conversation. It’s hard to both manage your emotions and think through the conversation. With a plan, you won’t have to worry about what you need to say or where you wanted to go.

3. Understand what provokes anger in others.

One of the most powerful ways to manage your own emotions is by understanding what escalates the emotions of conversations and actively working to prevent that from happening.

You already know that anger results when people feel threatened. So how can you lessen the perceived threat level? Here are a few ways to help:

  • Keep it low and slow—focus on speaking quietly and slowly.
  • Choose sad over mad—concern for the other person and sadness that they’re not succeeding prevents reactivity.
  • Choose curious over furious—genuinely ask what is happening from their perspective. When you really want to know, you’re not a threat. Curiosity also helps uncover hidden insecurities. Eg: the team member who uses anger to cover up their inability to use needed software.
  • Focus on behaviors and their impact—avoid mind-reading. You don’t know what another person is thinking or feeling. Claiming that you do is arrogant and feels like a threat.

4. Call a timeout.

There will still be times where one or both of you escalate the conversation and, despite your best intentions, you’re angry and likely to say something that will hurt the relationship. In these moments, taking a break to allow both of you to cool down and find the good in one another will help.

5. Recognize that growth doesn’t have to happen in your team.

Their success might not happen on your team. Sometimes, the role isn’t a suitable match for them. Or they lack the motivation.

The best help you can give some people is an opportunity to move on and explore their abilities elsewhere. That is disappointing, but ultimately, better for them and for your team. When you focus on that work, rather than thinking of a battle to win or lose, you’ll have a more even-tempered approach.

Your Turn

Leading a healthy performance conversation is a critical leadership skill. Your ability to keep your cool will help your employees achieve success more quickly—and build better relationships.

What would you add? Leave us a comment and share one way you keep your cool during challenging performance conversations.

5 Ways to Lead a Performance Conversation without Losing Your Cool

  1. Depersonalize Their Behavior
  2. Prepare for the Conversation
  3. Understand What Provokes Anger in Others
  4. Call a Timeout
  5. Recognize that Growth Doesn’t Have to Happen in Your Team

Creative Commons photo by merwing✿little dear

Posted in Winning Well and tagged , , , , .

David Dye

David Dye helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. He’s the President of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. He’s the award-winning authors of four 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 and hosts the popular Leadership without Losing Your Soul podcast. David is a former executive and elected official. David and his wife and business partner, Karin Hurt, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells - building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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