How to Relax Employees during Performance Discussions

How to Relax Employees during Performance Discussions

How eagerly do you think most employees await their performance reviews? Do you think your workforce looks forward to it as an opportunity to reflect and thrive, or do you think they dread that one day a year where they must have an awkward and pressure-fuelled discussion with their line manager about what they have done wrong over the past twelve months?

The answer probably won’t surprise you. Most employees hate performance reviews, looking at them as a waste of time and energy, as well as often pointless and insulting. In fact, 95% of managers hate performance reviews, too. They’re unpopular all-round, and science has shown they can cause a huge amount of anxiety by triggering our “fight or flight” response. 

So what’s the answer? You can’t abandon performance management altogether. You need to know how your employees are doing, whether they are meeting expectations, whether they are developing, or whether they need extra help. The fact of the matter is, performance management is a great idea — but often very poorly executed.

In an attempt to shake things up, a lot of companies have decided to switch to continuous performance management. This aims to improve communication and relationships between employee and manager through open, frequent and honest discussions. But making this organizational change is easier said than done. Employees might put up a fight — after all, why would they want more performance discussions when their experience so far has been overwhelmingly negative?

The transition won’t always be easy, but it’s worth it in the end. It all begins with helping employees transition into this new form of performance management. Below, we’ll explore five impactful ways managers can help employees to relax during performance discussions.

1. Meet Regularly to Discuss Performance

To illustrate this point, we’ll look at an example employee we’ll name Joe Bloggs. Joe works as hard as he can all year despite limited interaction with – or communication from – his line manager. He is conscious of his targets, and he tries his best to overcome any obstacles. Joe only really has one noteworthy discussion with his manager each year during his annual performance review.

During this review, Joe feels judged and unfairly treated. He has to justify behavior and actions from months ago (that are no longer fresh in his mind), and any positive feedback falls flat, as it is delivered so late. Too much is crammed into one short meeting, and Joe doesn’t feel he has been able to talk to his manager about what he needs or where he wants to go. This situation isn’t the recipe for a great working relationship. Joe will start to feel resentful of his manager: he will dread communications with them, and won’t feel relaxed when they do talk.

When employees can meet with their managers more regularly, they inevitably begin to relax. More of a connection develops, and communication starts to open up. They are aware that their manager is taking the time to discuss important issues with them, giving prompt feedback (positive and negative), and they can get training and resources as and when they need them. 

The first step to encouraging your employees to relax and open up during performance reviews is to hold them more regularly. This way, employees will feel they are talking to a real human being who genuinely cares about them and values their efforts, rather than an anonymous authoritarian.

2. Authenticity and Transparency Will Nurture Trusting Relationships

Employees begin to relax around their managers once they establish an honest dialogue. People don’t like to feel they are coddled. Employees don’t want you to withhold information. Be transparent with your employees — this will encourage greater levels of trust, comfort, and familiarity. It will also encourage employees to let their guard down and relax during performance conversations.

Don’t keep your employees on a need-to-know basis. They might not need to know things about company direction or obstacles but, if they are highly engaged, they will want to know. Refraining from sharing this information will make employees think they aren’t trusted — and if they think you don’t trust them, they aren’t likely to trust you in return. This will have a direct impact on communication and their anxiety levels during performance discussions.

3. Decouple Pay from Performance Discussions

One reason for performance review anxiety relates to pay. If an employee knows their performance will determine whether or not their pay increases or whether they get their bonus, they have a lot riding on the meeting. Money worries consume 94% of employees. A raise would most likely help. 

When we couple performance reviews with discussions about pay, employees become anxious, and we place the focus on rewards rather than honest feedback and professional development. Employees aren’t as likely to admit their shortcomings or to ask for help, and it can make it harder for employees to accept constructive feedback. 

A lot of companies are decoupling pay from performance for this very reason. Without the added pressure and question of pay hanging over their heads, employees can relax and open up about what they need, where they want to improve and what the company can do for them.

4. Remove Meaningless Performance Ratings

Performance ratings have been falling out of favor for a long time, and for good reasons. Performance ratings can be hugely demotivational for the majority of employees. With performance ratings, employees feel reduced to a number. Ratings don’t adequately reflect the nuance of an employees’ performance and, what’s more, while performance ratings might sound objective, performance ratings can be hugely subjective. After all, ratings are decided by a human — and humans can be subject to bias.

Your employees might be suffering anxiety during their performance reviews as a result of performance ratings. Remove them, treat your employees like human beings, and watch as their attitude and enthusiasm improves.

5. Give Your Employee Control over Performance Discussions

If your employee feels they lack any form of control when it comes to performance discussions, that is something easily remedied. Place your employee in the driver’s seat. Give them the autonomy to decide when you meet and what is discussed — let them write the agenda. As the manager, you can make sure you ask the right questions at the right times, and you can also make sure meetings are held regularly. But giving employees this control will help them feel more relaxed during reviews. They will have added confidence, and they will feel ownership over their role that will keep them engaged and motivated for years to come.

Stuart Hearn

Stuart Hearn is Founder and CEO of Clear Review, a performance management software solution that aims to improve communication and connections in companies.

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