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How do we create a workplace where it feels safe to have a discussion about performance?

An honest discussion about performance expectations can be a positive and rewarding experience and an important part of personal and professional growth, writes The Xfactor Collective specialist member Leanne Hart.

It’s almost that time of the year – a time that can fill team members with dread. They hear the words “performance review” or “annual review” and their minds immediately jump to thinking about the negative. But does it really have to be that way?

What if instead of focusing on performance discussions as a negative experience, we focus on creating a workplace where it feels safe and OK to talk about performance anytime, anywhere and with anyone in the team?

Humans are a strange bunch and they react in very human (ie unexpected) ways when they are placed in the vulnerable position of having someone assess what they do and how they do it.

The fear of performance discussions is often two-way with managers and individuals finding it equally uncomfortable. Even the most positive performance discussion can feel awkward if it happens in a workplace without mutual trust and respect.

A few years ago, I worked with a team member who was not delivering on key tasks in a way that her manager wanted. Her manager was uncomfortable giving feedback, so rather than having a conversation about her performance on certain tasks, he chose to ignore it and got increasingly annoyed when she wasn’t meeting his expectations.

The manager agreed that he needed to share some very specific feedback, with examples, and seek to understand her perspective. The team member had very high expectations of herself and took a lot of pride in what she did, so it was no surprise that the constructive feedback came as a shock and resulted in a lot of tears. But it also did something very important – it gave her the clarity that had been missing. I distinctly remember her telling me: “If only he had told me earlier. I would have known what he wanted, and I could have changed the way I did things”.

When the manager and I talked about it afterwards, he explained that his own performance discussions had always been a one-way process and largely a negative experience which he still carried the scars from. In his mind, the fear of a difficult discussion outweighed the potential benefits for both of them of providing regular, honest feedback to his own team member.

Organisations with a healthy culture of giving feedback are more easily able to foster a safe space through talking openly, often and setting the expectation that feedback is shared as part of ongoing development, not as criticism

  1. Make regular feedback and performance discussions part of everyday culture. Tough performance discussions are hard, but they too often happen because regular, specific feedback hasn’t been provided along the way. Don’t save it up for an annual review – no-one likes those sort of surprises! Reinforce positive contributions as and when they happen.
  2. Encourage and empower team members to give upward feedback. Managers are human too and also need positive reinforcement and constructive feedback to be their best.
  3. Follow up. People and organisations are not judged on their intentions, only their behaviours and actions. Trust, respect and safety come from knowing and seeing people do what they say they are going to do, so stay interested and be prepared to follow up with coaching, support and ongoing feedback when team members ask for it.

People are generally the biggest expense of an organisation, so it’s worth investing in the discussions and the outcomes by giving them the time they need/deserve. Create a space that allows team members to talk about, learn and develop from their wins and challenges.

A respectful performance discussion is healthy and will be remembered long after the weekend, so take the time to ensure it is a meaningful contributor to personal and professional growth.

  1. Create a habit of regular feedback.
  2. Invest in your people and the time it takes to nurture great talent.
  3. Follow up with support, coaching and feedback.

About the author: Leanne Hart is an experienced people/culture specialist and a foundation member of The Xfactor Collective social impact community. About the author: Leanne Hart is an experienced people/culture specialist and a foundation member of The Xfactor Collective social impact community. 

The Xfactor Collective is an Australian-first community where changemakers go for expert support and advice, including pre-vetted specialists across 100-plus areas of specialisation, specialist triage support services and a free video library.


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