Performance Management: Avoiding Fight or Flight

Performance discussion is about the most dreaded conversation that ever takes place at work, for both the employee and the manager.

When you need to discuss unsatisfactory performance with an employee, there is an excellent chance they will instantly become fearful. This leads to their adrenaline being activated and the workplace version of “fight or flight”.

That is, they will become incredibly defensive. Some people will be quite aggressive (fight), and others will stop communication by clamming up and even taking leave (flight).

As supervisors and managers it is absolutely critical that we make our employee feel safe from the moment we mention the words, “We need to have a meeting about…..” to the time that the performance issue has been fully worked through to its conclusion. If they don’t feel safe you’ll be dealing with an adrenaline pumped staff member whose regular, rational brain has escaped them. Any discussion then is unlikely to produce the results we seek.

How do you create safety in these difficult situations? You need to create a safe environment.

Avoid surprise

First of all avoid nasty surprises. You need to make constructive feedback a regular part of everyday discussions in the office. Give positive and constructive feedback regularly; some would say the once a week rule is good. This is not to say that once a week you need to sit down with your employees and engage in a ‘feedback’ session, but establish the habit of holding informal discussions with your staff within which you are giving feedback.

Firstly this reduces escalation of issues, and secondly the employee will know in advance that you have issues.

Invite with care

The safe environment needs to continue when you invite your employee to the dreaded performance meeting.

Use collaborative language. “I would like us to talk about”, not, “I need to talk to you about”. This sets the scene for having a genuine discussion and it demonstrates respect for your employee’s point of view. It may appear subtle, but they will hear the difference.

Be straight about the reason for the meeting, but stick to the facts, the observables, not the conclusions you may have drawn from the facts. “I would like us to talk about the way you will often cut people off in meetings.” Rather than the much more accusatory “I would like us to talk about the disrespect you show your colleagues in team meetings”. At the invite stage you need to avoid being involved in a “meeting before the meeting”, so stick to the facts, not your potentially incorrect conclusions which can easily inflame and start an instant debate.

Ask for their permission. “Would that be OK with you?” This again shows respect, although you may have to switch to a Plan B if the employee says “No it would not”!

Then go in for the call to action “Well how about I send you two or three available times and you choose which suits you best”, or “why don’t you send me a meeting planner for later this week?” Make sure your employee has a choice of times. This gives them some control that helps reduce any building fear.

The meeting itself

Restate the topic of the meeting exactly as per the invite stage (no surprises), then ask the employee an open question. “I am interested as to what you think?” or “perhaps you could let me know what happened?” This allows the employee an opportunity to say their piece and get anything off their chest before any more difficult questions are put their way. This gives a sense of control back to the employee and you are now much better informed as to how to proceed with the discussion.

Then state the aim of the meeting and ensure that this is a mutually acceptable purpose. “I think our aim here is to come up with a way that you can communicate your point of view in a way that the whole team is comfortable with. Is that OK?” Knowing that you share a mutual goal engenders trust and transparency. Until this point your employee may have been wondering where you are coming from.

Some people really do fear the worst (my job is on the line!) and in the time lapse between the invite and the meeting, they build this up to be a forgone conclusion. If you suspect this, address it immediately by contrasting. “Look, I am not saying that you are a bad team leader; generally speaking your work is good. It is just that with a few improvements to the way you communicate at meetings, I am thinking you will get better results from your team. So I was hoping that we might be able to talk about those improvements today. Is that OK?”

It is likely that you will need to gently probe to get to the root cause of any problem. It is important not to make this feel like an interrogation in order to ensure that all the reasons for the problem are tabled.

Once you are underway remain aware of any signals that your employee is becoming fearful and if so, return to a safety inducing technique:

  • Demonstrate respect
  • Reinforce mutual purpose
  • Use mirroring. Mirroring involves copying your employee’s body language and even their choice of words. This makes people relax, feel more comfortable and better understood.

Don’t under-estimate the fear that performance meetings can bring. Make it safe for your employees and protect yourself from the defensive fight or the run-away flight response. And then you can get on with your job and build a high performing team.

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