The three levels of performance conversations

If you are still stuck with annual appraisals, with maybe the occasional mid-year review, you are giving managers a massive ‘neuroscience’ headache.  Coaching and feedback are at the core of performance conversations, and you need to make sure they happen all year round.

Conversations about performance happen at essentially three levels, and mixing it all up usually results in everyone feeling muddled and let-down by the outcomes.

So – what are the levels, and how do you make it clear to managers when to use them?

I find a sporting analogy makes it really clear what you are talking about.

Level 1  – ‘In match Coaching’

During a match or competition, a coach might be saying ‘watch the defender’, ‘keep your eye on the ball’, ‘stay focused’ and so on.

For your managers this means giving plenty of ‘in-the-moment’ feedback.  This might be specific praise for a piece of work well done.  Or a short private discussion immediately following a situation where a team member’s behaviour had a negative impact on others.   It might be an email thanking someone for turning up early.  It might be a short phone call when a deadline is missed, to ascertain if there is a real problem to be addressed.   The more ‘in the moment’ feedback there is, the fewer long term problems will develop, and the more likely the team is to perform well.

Level 2 – ‘Post Match de-brief’

After a match or competition, a coach might help you reflect on what happened, what went well, where to focus your development effort in the next few weeks, and what you can learn from the experience

For your managers, this is the classic ‘1-2-1’ conversation.  It’s often about projects, budgets, delivery, case-work and so on.  But it’s NOT a project management meeting, it’s about performance.  Think about feedback and coaching.  What has gone well in the last few weeks, what can be learnt.  What went wrong, what can be learnt?  Are there immediate capability or development needs that are hindering performance.  Are working relationships going well.  Are there other matters, well-being for example – that might be important to explore now.  This conversation is the life blood of a high performing organisation.  It happens like clockwork on a well-understood frequency.  Ironically, because it works so well, the value of the ongoing conversations may not be explicitly recognised by some employees.  It can come as a shock when employees move to an organisation lacking such habits, to find that there are not regular check-ins, and that performance is not really managed at all.  

Level 3 – ‘Win the league, Be on the Podium’

Two or three times a year, you and your coach would sits back reflect on progress to date, and make a bigger plan aimed at achieving your sporting ambition for the year:  perhaps winning a league, a trophy or even a gold medal.  You might consider, for example, learning a new technique, improving over-all fitness, or changing your approach to competing.    It’s a time for exploring how to make the most of your potential and opportunities.

This conversation is often the ‘stuck on at the end if we have time’ part of an annual appraisal.  Done well, it is challenging, thought provoking, and designed to lead to significant performance improvement over time.  Ideally it is focused around longer term ambitions for both employee and the organisation.  Where is the organisation going? What role can the employee see for themselves?  What would a step change in performance look like?  How could we make that happen?  How can personal ambitions be best realised within the organisation?  What might need to change?  What development would bring the ambition closer?  This conversation is the difference between an organisation that manages execution well, and organisation that has the collective will of its employees to make a difference in the world, whatever that might look like.  An organisation that manages these conversations well, attracts and retain good people for the long term, enabling them to realise their ambitions and creating a high performing, culture where people are both able and willing to do their best work every day.


When I explain levels of feedback and coaching using this analogy, most managers quickly see the differences, and understand why trying to have all three conversations at the same time would be deeply confusing.    It’s why we know that simply ‘abandoning appraisals’ does not create the shift if performance than many leaders hope for.  It’s vital that all employees understand there are different type of conversations, and are able to participate in each of them fully.