You’re sitting in your annual performance review. Your manager seems uncomfortable. You’re not sure why you’re even here; your goals were never clearly defined, and they haven’t given you much feedback along the way. The whole experience feels awkward at best, and at worst, like a waste of time. So how do you tip the balance to make your next performance conversation a success?

Sadly, it’s a nightmare scenario that’s far too common. Performance conversations at work — any 1:1 meeting between a manager and an employee that’s based on performance — are often dreaded by both parties. They can be clunky, unfocused, and when done poorly, downright demoralizing.

But it doesn’t have to be this way! Whether a standard review, a quick catch-up, or an annual evaluation, performance conversations are absolutely essential for helping employees grow, boosting engagement, and ultimately increasing their likelihood of staying with your organization. Research from Gallup shows 80% of employees who say they have received meaningful feedback in the past week are fully engaged at work. That engagement translates into better performance and lower turnover.

When done with intentionality, you can transform performance conversations from “panic attack waiting to happen” to “powerful tool for employee success.” Don’t worry: we’re showing you how.

RELATED: How to manage difficult employees for a more harmonious workplace

1.   Prepare yourself

A performance convo is a lot like planning a road trip. You wouldn’t just jump in a car without a destination in mind, would you? A little preparation goes a long way in making sure this important discussion is productive and empowering.

Performance conversation tips for Managers:

  • Gather your intel: Don’t show up empty-handed. Review available performance data, relevant feedback from others, and any notes from previous conversations. A study by McKinsey & Company highlighted that managers who prepare with data are perceived as significantly more fair and competent in their performance reviews.
  • Celebrate the wins: Focus on the positive! Especially identifying specific victories and accomplishments the employee should be proud of. Everyone loves a bit of recognition.
  • Be constructive, not critical: Yes, you’ll need to discuss areas for growth. Frame these development opportunities with a solutions-oriented mindset. Think more “How can we work together to improve this skill?” rather than simply pointing out shortcomings.
  • What’s the goal here? Determine what you want to achieve with this conversation. Are you setting performance goals for the upcoming quarter? Addressing a specific skill gap? Having a clear purpose will guide the entire discussion.

Performance conversation tips for Employees:

  • Do some moody self-reflection: No, but seriously, encourage your employees to come prepared, too! Suggest they think about what they’re proud of, the challenges they faced, where they’d like support, and what they’d like to do next. This empowers them to take ownership of their development and provides you with insights to better help them thrive.
  • Speak up: Let your employees know that the conversation should be a dialogue. Particularly, make space beforehand for them to jot down what they’d like to discuss. This might include questions about career growth or requests for specific training opportunities.

For example:

Let’s say you’re a manager preparing for a conversation with a talented designer. Your preparation might include gathering the sales figures from their recent marketing campaign, shouting out specific praise from the client, and outlining how you’d like to support their development in typography skills.

Did you know?

According to research from the Center for Effective Organizations (CEO), companies with a strong culture of ongoing feedback and development see significantly higher employee retention and performance levels, and 2x net profit margin and ROI than their peers.

2.   Create a positive, open environment

The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) found accountability meetings with another person increase the odds of fulfilling individual goals by 95 percent. But if a performance conversation comes across like a police interrogation, it’s not exactly going to inspire anyone to open up.

Creating a positive atmosphere is a sign of respect, and shows a genuine desire to see your employees succeed. It allows for honest communication, which ultimately leads to better solutions and a stronger manager-employee relationship. Performance conversations work best when they feel safe and collaborative. Here’s how to build that vibe:

Tip the balance and make performance conversations about growth

From the get-go, make it clear that this conversation is about development, not discipline. A study by leadership development firm Zenger Folkman found that employees were much more receptive to feedback when it was framed through a positive lens. Phrases like, “Let’s talk about how you can build upon your strengths” or “I’m here to support you in reaching your goals” set an encouraging tone.

Privacy, please!

Choose a quiet, neutral space where you and your employee won’t be interrupted. This shows you value the conversation and respect their right to confidentiality. Never, ever have these discussions in a public space, like a bustling break room. Who wants to have a sensitive convo in front of other people?

Really, actually listen

Practice active listening — that means putting your phone down and giving your undivided attention, taking note of non-verbal cues, asking clarifying questions like “Can you tell me more about that?” and reflecting what you’re hearing to make sure you understand. Feeling truly heard strengthens trust and makes employees more open to feedback. Active listening has also been linked to improved communication skills, higher job satisfaction, and higher retention rates.

What’s more, regular opportunities for open dialogue are shown to contribute to higher levels of engagement. In a global study from The Workplace Institute at UKG, 74% of employees said they are more effective at their job when they feel heard.

“To learn through listening, practice it naively and actively. Naively means that you listen openly, ready to learn something, as opposed to listening defensively, ready to rebut. Listening actively means you acknowledge what you heard and act accordingly.

Betsy Sanders, Nordstrom
Two women exchange performance conversations tips

3.   Focus on the future, not just the past

Turning performance conversations at work into coaching sessions requires a forward-thinking mindset. Dwelling too much on past mistakes can create defensiveness and derail the purpose: growth, remember? While it’s important to learn from the past, your performance conversation should be primarily about where your employee is headed, not where they’ve been.

  • Strike a balance: Start with the good! Acknowledging strengths and successes establishes trust and shows that you value the employee’s contributions. Then, consider softening the problem areas with positive points. According to research, the most effective feedback blends positive and constructive comments in a roughly 5:1 ratio.
  • Get SMART about goal setting: Setting goals is a huge driver in engagement: if employees aren’t clear on their responsibilities, how do you expect them to change? Instead of vague directives like “improve your communication,” work together to define SMART goals. These are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. They should be realistic yet challenging, and have a clear timeline. Using OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) can also ensure goals align with broader company ambitions, and gives you and your employee a path to success.
  • Talk is cheap: Once goals are set, it’s time to map out the how. Does the employee need specific training? Would a mentor be helpful? Would they benefit from shadowing someone with a particular skill set? Outline clear action steps and resources — remember, this is a collaborative effort!

The art of feedback: constructive vs. criticism

Criticism and constructive feedback live on the same planet, but there’s a world of difference between the two. Here’s how to ensure your conversation lands in the right orbit:

  • It’s not about you, it’s about them: Frame feedback around the impact of the employee’s work, not your personal opinions. Instead of  “I don’t like how you formatted that report,” be specific, citing examples: “Including more data analysis in your reports would make them even stronger.”
  • Time is of the essence: If possible, give feedback in a timely manner. Waiting months to address a performance issue only makes it harder to change course.
  • It’s a skill, and it takes practice: If delivering feedback feels tricky, that’s normal! The more you do it in a constructive, future-focused way, the better you’ll get. Consider role-playing scenarios with other managers or HR team members to hone your skills.

For example:

Perhaps a sales rep missed their quarterly targets. Rather than just saying, “Your numbers were disappointing,” try: “You’ve shown lots of initiative in building client relationships. Let’s pinpoint where leads are dropping off and strategize how to improve your closing rates.” Moreover, you could offer to connect them with the team’s top salesperson to work on negotiation tactics.


Pro performance conversation tip! While the feedback sandwich (positive-negative-positive) is a known technique, it’s sometimes better to skip the bread and get right to the meat of the matter. Open with positive intent, then focus on the actionable, development-oriented feedback.

4.   Give everyone a voice

Performance conversations are a two-way street. This isn’t the time for a lecture; rather, your employee should feel comfortable offering feedback to you, too — after all, you’ve created such a positive and supportive environment, right? Forbes’ insights on employee listening show that employees whose managers sought their feedback were more likely to feel engaged and valued at their jobs.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of doing most of the talking. But our top tip during a performance conversation at work: resist that urge! Actively encourage employee input with questions like:

  • “What challenges have you encountered in reaching this goal?”
    • “How can I better support you going forward?”
    • “What additional resources or training would be helpful for you?”

Fostering a culture of two-way communication in the workplace is guaranteed to build trust and engage your people. Deloitte finds that trusting employees are 260% more motivated to work and have 41% lower rates of absenteeism. The bad news? Roughly 1 in 4 workers don’t trust their employer. It’s clearly time for a change.

Balancing transparency with performance

The data doesn’t lie: when employees feel their input is valued, they’re more likely to share ideas, elevate team performance, and innovate in their roles. Here are a few more ways to nail this balance:

  • Respond, don’t react: When your employee does speak up, really listen. Avoid getting defensive or jumping to solutions right away. Acknowledge their concerns and be open to exploring their perspective. Research shows that employees who feel listened to are 4.6 times more likely to perform their best work. The power of active listening is undeniable!
  • Solve problems together: Tackle issues collaboratively instead of dictating a solution. You could ask, “What are some ideas you have for addressing this challenge?” or “How can we work together to improve the process?” This empowers employees to take ownership of their development and feel invested in outcomes.
  • Offer ongoing support: Performance conversations shouldn’t be an isolated event. McKinsey data shows that organizations with a strong focus on continuous improvement are more likely to outperform their peers. Offer ongoing guidance and support throughout the year — this could look like regular check-ins, targeted coaching, or just being available to answer questions as needed.

RELATED: How engagement and performance make the perfect double act

5.   Make performance conversations a regular thing

Remember cramming for a big exam? The traditional annual performance review is a lot like that. You might pass the test, but long-term retention of the material is…questionable. The same goes for performance conversations — if you’re aiming for sustained growth and development, take our tip: one grand sit-down per year just isn’t going to cut it.

In fact, we recommend a performance cycle that uses:

  • A weekly check-in
  • A monthly 1:1 meeting that includes goal-setting once a quarter
  • A quarterly or bi-annual performance conversation

It’s all about consistency!

According to Gallup, employees are 3 times more engaged when they receive daily (vs. annual) feedback from their managers. Short, frequent performance conversations become part of your work routine instead of this looming event people dread. Whether it’s a monthly check-in or even a brief 15-minute weekly chat, this consistency keeps goals fresh and allows for real-time course correction.

Performance development is truly a team effort. After outlining goals and devising an action plan, both the employee and manager have roles to play in follow-through. Revisiting these action items via regular check-ins keeps progress (and potential roadblocks) front and center. It’s that frequent, light-touch feedback helps hold yourself and your employees accountable while providing necessary support along the way.

RELATED: 10 questions you should be asking in weekly check-ins

6.   Don’t underestimate the power of genuine praise to tip the scales in performance conversations

Picture it: you poured your time and energy into a project and then…crickets. No sign that your effort was even noticed! Humans are wired to crave recognition from our caretakers, teachers, and peers — so there’s little more demoralizing than working your butt off and getting zero acknowledgement.

On the other hand, sincere employee recognition has a tremendous ripple effect. It is a powerful (and often underused) tool in performance conversations. Employee recognition costs virtually nothing, but the ROI is huge; a recent Great Place to Work study finds employees who are recognized at work are 2x as likely to put in extra effort, drive innovation, and bring bold new ideas forward. But how?

How to use recognition for performance

  • The proof is in the pudding: There’s loads of data on the power of positive reinforcement. According to bestselling author Shawn Achor, employee recognition raises nearly every measurable business outcome, increasing sales by 37%, productivity by 31%, accuracy on tasks by 19%, and providing improvements to employees’ health and quality of life. When we feel appreciated, we’re more likely to repeat the actions that earned us that recognition. It’s a simple, but often overlooked way to encourage desired behaviors.
  • Appreciation can work wonders: Regular employee recognition can change your entire workplace culture. Employees feel valued and are far more likely to go above and beyond (not to mention stay with your company longer!). Make it a habit to celebrate everyday wins, not just major achievements. When employees see their colleagues being recognized for contributions, it inspires them to strive for excellence too.
  • Recognize what really matters: A generic “good job” can lack impact. Be specific about what the employee did well and point out why their contribution matters. You might say something like, “Your presentation today was clear, engaging, and your insights were spot on!” This tip of the hat shows you truly noticed their effort between formal performance conversations. Also, try to tailor recognition to the individual — some people may love public praise, while others would prefer a personalized note, virtual high-five, or small gift.
  • It goes beyond pay: While compensation is important, a study by McKinsey & Company found that up to 55% of employee engagement is “driven by nonfinancial recognition.” This shows that praise from managers is actually just as — or even more — important to employees’ sense of belonging.

For example:

Maybe your team was under pressure to hit an important deadline and someone pulled an all-nighter to make it happen. Before blindly moving on to the next project, take the time to sincerely thank them. That could mean treating them to coffee, highlighting their dedication in a team email, or giving them a day off to catch up on sleep. This sends the clear message that you value their hard work and commitment.

two men collaborating on performance conversations tips

7.   Leverage technology to make your performance review process tip top

Performance conversations don’t have to equal piles of paperwork. A study by Deloitte found that the most effective companies blend technology with a strong human-centric work design. Basically, the tech handles logistics, while you, the manager, focus on providing insightful coaching, meaningful support, and building that essential trust with your employee.

From tools that allow for anonymous employee feedback to platforms facilitating real-time peer recognition, there are exciting things happening in this space. Digital tracking and performance measuring software like Zensai’s Perform365 and Engage365 show an employee’s progress at the touch of a button — that includes feedback you’ve given, OKR tracking, pass-ups, 360 feedback, and shout-outs from peers. They take some of the administrative weight off performance conversations, thanks to:

  • Goal setting: Easily create and track SMART goals collaboratively.
  • Feedback: See ongoing feedback and notes in a centralized record rather than scattered emails.
  • Reporting: Visualize performance data and trends at a glance.

Use technology to enhance conversations, not replace them

Technology can be an amazing tool. But keep in mind that it’s just that: a tool meant to enhance performance conversations, not replace them. The tip of a great performance conversation at work is still a genuine connection! Here’s how to balance new technologies with the human touch:

  • Prioritize face-to-face meetings: While digital tools are wonderful for informal feedback or quick check-ins, important performance conversations should still occur in person (or, if remote, via video chat) for that nuanced, personalized communication. Addressing sensitive issues is best handled with empathy and the ability to read body language cues — something technology can’t fully replicate yet.
  • Don’t let data dictate everything: Performance data is valuable, but you’re only getting part of the story. Use technology tools alongside your own observations, insights, and those all-important conversations with your employees.
  • Train your team to thrive: If you implement new performance management software, make sure you’re giving thorough training to both managers and employees. Clunky tech creates frustration, not efficiency.

“Technology by itself doesn’t make leaders. Technology only amplifies true leadership.”

Steve Jobs

Bringing our performance review tips together

Performance conversations at work may have a reputation for being uncomfortable or ineffective, but we’re all about shifting that narrative. Our belief is that they can actually be powerful catalysts for growth, engagement, and positive change within your organization.

As a refresher, here are the keys to successful performance conversations:

  • Preparation: Gather data and set a clear purpose for the conversation.
  • Open communication: Create a safe space, actively listen, and invite employee input.
  • Future focus: Use the past as a springboard for setting goals and outlining plans for growth.
  • Regularity: Performance conversations at work should be an ongoing dialogue, not just an annual event.
  • Recognition: Celebrate wins regularly, too! This fosters a culture of appreciation that can have major benefits to your bottom line.
  • Incorporate tech: Use tech wisely to save time and gain insights, but never lose sight of building strong manager-employee relationships.

Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. The best performance conversations at work are tailored to the individual employee and their unique goals. As a result, understanding your team members’ strengths, challenges, and motivations helps you personalize how you provide support and guidance. A study by Gallup finds that organizations offering strengths-based performance development saw a 29% increase in profits and 23% increase in employee engagement.

Another way to boost engagement is by encouraging a culture where feedback — both positive and constructive — flows freely. When employees feel safe to speak up, ask questions, and offer suggestions, everyone benefits.

Performance conversations aren’t just for assessing what’s past; they’re about inspiring what’s possible. So, whether you’re a manager or an employee, embrace them as opportunities for improvement. When you invest in these discussions, you’re investing in yourself, your team, and the overall success of your organization.