Having Real Conversations about Performance Issues

Whenever Ellie asked her manager about her promotion opportunities, her manager would say “Don’t worry, you will be promoted soon as I’ve put in a good word for you.” A few months down the road, Ellie found out that someone else had been given the promotion opportunity. When she asked her manager about it, he said that it was a HR decision and he couldn't do anything about it.
How do you think Ellie felt? She might develop some doubt towards her manager or start losing structural trust in the organisation’s promotions process. In the long run, if these doubts are not satisfactorily resolved, it won’t be surprising that individuals find little reason to stay with the organisation.
Ellie and her manager didn’t have a real conversation about why she didn’t get the promotion. The impact of not having a real conversation can break trust between the employee and manager as well as a weakening trust in the organisation’s processes, eventually leading to disengagement at work.
As a leader, you might be familiar with the situation. Having conversations related to performance can seem incredibly difficult, especially when you feel that your message will not be received well. This often leads to finding excuses (like in the example by blaming HR) or not addressing the issue at all. Real conversation provides you with a framework that will enable you to address issues feeling confident, competent and committed.
So what exactly are real conversations?
Simply put, a real conversation is telling others what’s really on your mind. It requires you to confidently confront your employees with “real issues”, with the intention of interacting and achieving a shared understanding. This collaborative approach will result in more effective communication amongst you and your employee.
For your real conversation to give opportunities to you and your employee, as well as chances to clarify or validate reality, there are 3 fundamental principles that must be part of every real conversation.


Principles of Real Conversations

1. Principle of Being Genuine

Real conversations are all based on genuineness. When pursuing real conversations your intentions must be genuine. This means telling your employee exactly how you feel, without pretence. Being authentic here is essential, which means being sincere, honest, truthful and not hypocritical. Your intentions must be pure and able to withstand the scrutiny of others.

Being genuine means being real, putting off your facade in conversing with your employee, caring and being concerned for him/her beyond your own self-interest.


2. Principle of Timely Honesty

Being completely honest is thought valuable by most cultures around the world, nevertheless, it can be challenging to actually translate honesty into your actual behaviours. Most of the time, we are inclined to share filtered information with others, because we don’t want to upset them.

The concept of timely honesty in real conversations refers to speaking the truth at an appropriate moment in time. This means that you need to be selecting an appropriate moment to share the truth with your employee when you decide to initiate a real conversation. Try to be as honest as possible with your counterpart, making sure to find a time in which your employee is in a stable emotional state to deal with the truth.

3. Principle of Maturity

Being mature means to own your responsibilities without referencing to external forces. In the real conversation, this means that no blaming should take place. Being able to address and deal with your own conscious and unconscious fears of dealing with hurt will help you cope and address what is true to yourself and others. This ability expresses a high level of maturity makes others experience psychological safety when they converse with you. If you are willing to self-disclose and express yourself with appropriate self-knowledge, this will allow your employee to let his/her guard down and relate to you with ease and respect.

In the case of Ellie and her manager conversing, applying the principles would mean:

Ellie’s manager should have been honest to her about the chances of her getting the promotion from the start. He could have elaborated more on his intention of promoting her and the chances of this being heard. While doing this, her manager could have shown maturity in conveying his own ways and boundaries in influencing the decision makers, giving her the psychological safety needed to have an easy and respectful real conversation. After the final decision, he should have explained to her, why she didn’t get the promotion, exploring ways with her on how she could get a future promotion, rather than just referring to HR.

If you follow the 3 principles in your own real conversation, a relationship of mutual trust can evolve between you and your employee. Here are 3 more suggestions that will help facilitate effective outcomes of real conversations by building trust: 

Building Trust in Your Organisation

1. Create Psychological Safety

Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as a shared belief amongst team members; that it is alright to take interpersonal risks within the team and that the repercussions will not be punishing. As a part of trust building, a real conversation is about achieving a psychological equilibrium wherein the parties involved experience psychological safety and are able to take psychological risks to address the reality of issues.

Psychological Equilibrium = Psychological Safety + Psychological Risk

To create an environment of psychological safety, try to do the following:

  • Maintain an attitude of openness when you receive feedback about how you manage performance as a leader, this will help to remain neutral throughout the real conversation process.
  • Develop trustworthy behaviours in your role. Keep your promises, admit when your wrong, don’t gossip, be competent and capable in your work, and so on. If you promise your employee that you will make sure they get promoted - make sure they do. If it doesn’t work out, explain why and admit that processes didn’t go as planned.
  • Control your anger. Don’t give in to your feelings but train yourself to be patient. This will allow conflicts to be resolved constructively. If your employee didn’t perform as expected, focus on finding ways to improve future performance, rather than elaborating on how disappointed you are about past performance.
  • Value listening over being right and understanding over being understood. People know you care when you have taken the time to listen to them, to understand them, and can clearly articulate back to them their thoughts. Listen closely when your employee talks about why they performed as they did, providing you with information on what he/she needs to secure future performance.

2. Container Building

The goal here is to build a container for the team – an intangible psychological container that “holds” all manner of interactions, be it positive or negative. Some containers are made of glass and are extremely fragile; these break whenever there is an external pressure that stresses the team. Some containers are made of steel and can withstand the winds of change in the workplace. 

Be the strong container for your employees’ that gives everyone the ability to withstand external pressures, work-related stress and changes. The strength of your container depends on how strong your trust relationships are.

3. Practical Strategies to Build Trust

  • Take the time to affirm efforts, even when performance outcomes differ from what was planned.
  • Ensure that your employee’s voice is heard, including his/her needs, fears and concerns. Stay focused on the big picture and objectives. Do not resort to non-constructive criticism.
  • Ensure that there is frequent and timely communication among you and your employee. Proactively keep one another informed of new information, changes, and issues.
  • Create charters that define the boundaries about what is proper to ask and discuss and what crosses the line.
  • Ensure that you and your employee have sufficient face-to-face time, even though there might be expenses. It is much more effective to develop trust, respect and increase understanding and productivity.
  • Plan regular meetings that allow you and your employee to share challenges and seek for solutions together.
  • Always demonstrate a positive attitude towards each other. Reinforce the positive instead of criticising the negative.


Making the conversations you have with your employee real by keeping in mind the 3 principles and building a culture of trust in your organisation, will improve talking about performance issues for both you and your employee. Whenever Ellie asked her manager about her promotion opportunities, her manager would say “Don’t worry, you will be promoted soon as I’ve put in a good word for you.” A few months down the road, Ellie found out that someone else had been given the promotion opportunity. When she asked her manager about it, he said that it was a HR decision and he couldn't do anything about it.

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