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How to Engage Employees in Performance Discussions

Posted by Louellen Essex on November 14, 2013 in Performance Management

Have you ever been disappointed by the lack of employee participation in performance discussions? More often than you’d like, have you received minimal input and dialogue, even when asking probing questions? Studies tell us employees are quiet, in part, because they don’t really believe performance discussions are valuable. They describe them as unrelated to their job duties, condescending, meaningless, and not a true indicator of their performance. While it’s challenging to overcome these obstacles, it IS possible to create a true dialogue by following these guidelines.

Clarify Performance Expectations
Devote a staff meeting to reviewing competencies, goals, and rating scales. Discuss what the numbers on the scale mean and together decide what performance at each level, on each competency, looks like. Discuss how goals will be measured. By involving employees in setting expectations, you have begun the process of engagement long before performance discussions occur.

Encourage Ongoing Documentation
Just as you would prepare examples of performance to discuss with each of your employees, ask them to create the same. Encourage them to collect work samples, log challenges and successes, and keep copies of relevant email. Talking about performance is more comfortable when employees are equipped with strong examples.

Use a Self-Assessment Format
For yearly reviews, the formal review form could be used for self-appraisal. For ongoing performance discussions, develop a set of questions to help employees be prepared and analyze how the work is progressing. Questions might focus on:
• What is going well and why?
• What challenges are you facing and how are you working through them?
• What help do you need from others or me?
• Are the goals still on track or do they need to be altered? What changes would you suggest?
For some staff members, it is difficult to face a blank page. It is much easier to respond to questions and, for the most introverted, allows them to read from their notes as the conversation warms up.

Let the Employee Take the Lead
When the performance discussion goes live, ask the employee to begin the discussion of each question, goal, or competency, then follow with your point of view. It’s difficult for employees to respond, once the manager has given an opinion, particularly when they don’t agree. When your opinion differs, avoid language that suggests the employee is wrong. Say, I don’t quite agree; I have a different view; I saw the outcome differently… then give specific examples.

Negotiate Differences
When opinions differ, consider your options. If the employee makes a good case, be open to changing your mind. Hold your ground when the employee is not convincing. Look for a middle ground when both you and the employee have made some good points. This might occur around adjusting expectations, due dates, or resources assigned. It is important that employees feel they can truly influence you. Otherwise, the discussion will be viewed as “pseudo engagement.”

Have More Frequent Performance Discussions
Avoid the “save and dump” approach of the yearly performance review, whereby managers deliver most of the feedback they have for employees in one siting. Instead, have ongoing performance discussions, shorter in duration, with more immediate feedback. While this is considered “best practice,” it provides, as an added benefit, the opportunity for staff members to get more practice in talking
about their work. With more practice comes more ease.

Monitor Your Attitude
If you want a robust dialogue with your staff members, be truly open to employee participation. This means displaying an authentic willingness to actively listen to employees’ points of view, integrate them into assessments, and negotiate through differences.

By using these guidelines, you will become an effective coach and champion for employee engagement in performance discussions. It’s hard for employees to be passive when they have been given the tools and encouragement that motivates them to get involved.

(To learn more about how Human Resource professionals can help employees become engaged in performance discussions, register for my upcoming webcast on November 20, 11:00–noon EST at

What strategies have you used to encourage employee involvement in performance discussions?

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In these times of rapid change, leaders can never stop learning.”

Dr. Louellen Essex