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How to get performance feedback conversations right 

Globally performance appraisals have been in the cross hairs for a long time, with many arguing that they simply don't add any value.

In our latest blog, we look at why, physiologically speaking, performance appraisals and worthwhile career development conversations struggle to coexist. We also give some tips for creating talent development discussions that unlock energy and motivate individuals to lead and drive success for themselves.


By Danie Eksteen - This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Martin was caught by surprise 
– it all happened so quickly. In a heartbeat (well two, literally), without him doing anything, his body launched an all-out offensive. He started secreting adrenaline and other chemicals, causing his heart to race up to 30 beats faster than his fit 62 beats per second. Though his heart was contracting harder and pumping faster, arteries constricted, blood was drawn from the periphery into the centre of his body (to reduce bleeding in the case of a skin cut), and the blood supply to his kidneys and gut reduced – some organs stopped working (in a crisis the body knows how to focus!). These are just the headlines of some of what was going on in his physiology: a focused comprehensive offensive, which leaves one with nothing less than reverence for the human body.

This would all have been absolutely appropriate if Martin was trying to run away from a predator, escape a suicide bomber, or trying to correct his car from skidding on a wet road. But he wasn’t. He was simply sitting in his performance appraisal – and all of this happened without his boss, who was seated opposite him, knowing anything about it.  

John Gottman calls this Diffuse Psychological Arousal[1] and Daniel Goleman talks about our neural tripwire[2]  – simply put, we are in fight (“where are my boxing gloves/ baseball bat?”), flight (“let me get the hell out of here, NOW!”) or freeze (“gulp… I can’t move”) territory. We don’t hear well, we have tunnel vision, and it’s as if our thinking brains have been hijacked or gone AWOL. In this state it’s impossible to engage in a constructive conversation. If Martin’s boss had been hoping to have an up-building, motivating, career-development discussion, she was sorely mistaken.

So how do we create the conditions for life giving, energy unlocking, effective professional growth and development discussions? 

a)  Don’t think that performance appraisal equals career development discussion

We accept that some form of evaluation of performance across the board is needed in organisations (we won’t discuss the ‘how’ in this blog). But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that how performance appraisals are typically done can also serve as a constructive development discussion that unlocks the individual potential needed in successful organisations. That requires something else. A different process and conversation.

b)  Create an appropriate level of intensity

Although performance appraisal discussions purport to evaluate actions and results that are external to the individual (“performance”), for the person being appraised, the process reaches much deeper and speaks to a part of their identity: “individual expression of purpose in the workplace”. And when we perceive that our identities are under attack[3] a Diffuse Psychological Arousal (DPA) response is very quickly triggered.

For a constructive, deep-reaching conversation, an optimal level of intensity is needed. This is called an ‘Elevated Level of Arousal’ or EPA, i.e. not the normal humdrum but stirred, interested and intrigued yet not over challenged. You have achieved this if the conversation leaves the employee feeling engaged, enthusiastic, eager, excited, encouraged and energetic[4].

c)  Really care about their success and growth, and show it

George Zimmer[5] says that the mindset of leaders should be that their success lies in ‘creating success for others’, and that they do this by unleashing the synergistic human energy and creativity that comes from motivated people. Schuitema[6] says that this ‘unleashing of individual human energy’ is possible if the individual knows, senses or experiences that the leader with real power over their destiny (often the line manager and not HR) shows care for the employee’s wellbeing and real concern for their professional growth, seeing the individual not as a means to and end but as an end in themselves.

d)  Make regular feedback part of your culture

Imagine a ship’s captain only checked its direction once a week? Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? But annual or even quarterly feedback is similar – an employee might blissfully be heading in the wrong direction, yet no-one has bothered to tell them. To avoid this, feedback needs to be far more regular, even in the moment where possible.

However, for some, like the introvert leader, feedback in the moment is simply not easy. Which is why we often suggest to leader coachees that they find a way to institutionalise feedback, in other words make it part of the culture of their team, without making it a BIG deal. It’s no big event, it’s expected, everyone knows it will happen. For example, some teams have stand-up meetings for 10 minutes every Monday morning, where everyone says what they are busy with and has the opportunity to give feedback to others about what worked the previous week and what not. Other leaders do weekly 10 minute sessions on a one-on-one basis behind a closed door. In addition, they still do longer comprehensive discussions, but the 10 minute slots allow for short-term adjustments by the employee.     

e)  Let them do the talking (and thinking) – ask the right questions

The human brain prefers thinking to being told. Our brains love questions. These trigger curiosity. What do you think about…? What if…? How can we…? If you could…? These are all questions that trigger our inherent curiosity. Around Easter time last year my six-year old son asked us “why are hot-cross buns called hot-cross buns”? Although I love these spicy raisin bread rolls and happily eat them all year round, I had no idea why they had their name. But my brain was curious (and I bet yours is too as you read this) and I had to find the answer (thanks Google!). His question triggered my curiosity, before this I hadn’t ever wondered about the name.

My point? The challenge to the line manager is to ask the questions that will trigger the employee’s curiosity and thinking, and leave them wanting to find the answers for themselves.

So with all of the above in mind, here are some suggestions of what you could ask in a career development discussion to help those you lead drive and create success for themselves:

   1) What are you really proud of achieving in the last period?

   2) If you could, what would you have done differently in the last period?

   3) What is the 60% of your job that you really love?

   4) If you could design a role (not a title) for yourself, what would you do in 3 to 5 years’ time? Describe some of the content/responsibilities.

   5) What do you need to start doing to get there?

   6) How can I help you achieve this?

What are some of your favourite career development questions? I would love to hear from you.


Contact us at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it if you need more information on structuring your team's development in an appropriate manner.



[1] John Gottman, The mathematics of Love,, April 4 2004,   
[2] Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, 1995, New York Bantam
[3] Or as David Rock calls it, a Social Need being threatened. David Rock, Managing with the Brain in Mind, David Rock, strategy+business, issue 56, Autumn 2009
[4] Egonomics, David Markum and Steven B Smith, 2008, Touchstone
[5] Grounding Conscious Capitalism in Shared Servant Leadership,
[6] Leadership, The Care and Growth Model, E Schuitema, 2004, Ampersand> 


#4 Danie Eksteen
2016-03-16 19:52
Thanks Bernard, spot on. Though I do think I talk too much when I teach my boys play cricket!
#3 Bernard Koch
2016-03-16 14:52
Great blog. Imagine one is teaching one's son to play cricket. Every shot you provide feedback. "Hold the bat a little more like this", "That's it, great shot" etc etc.

In the moment feedback followed up by re-inforcing positive behaviour and growth is taking place every moment of every day.

Shouldn't we as leaders be growing our staff like this.
#2 Lynn Witten
2016-03-08 04:35
Really great article. Brings up memories of days when performance appraisals was a regular occurrence and the mistakes I made along the way. Well done!
#1 Martin Msukwa
2016-03-07 07:59
This is a GREAT piece and shared at a perfect time when we are in the middle of performance appraisal. I totally agree and am a strong believer and advocate of ongoing two way feedback between the supervisor and the employee.

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