Be great at talking performance

A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That’s why there are so few good conversations: due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet – Truman Capote

A feature of high performance cultures is that people are constantly working together to understand their performance recipe – what helps them perform well and be ready to perform when it matters. It seems to be part of their DNA, not just what they do, but who they are.

Reading time: 5 minutes

What goes on

Walk into any place of work and pretty soon you’ll hear lots of conversations about how the business is doing. Spend any time there and you’d learn pretty quickly which departments, teams and people are delivering results. And if you hang out a bit longer, you’d get a good sense of what’s going on, what the business is aiming for, what needs to get done, when it needs to get done by and who’s going to do it.

To some these sound like good performance conversations. But not to people who really understand performance. They’re having results conversations. They’re not the same thing. They’re rubbish at getting you the results you want and even worse, they can actually get in the way. And doing anything in the name of performance that actually gets in the way of performance is not big and it’s not clever.

People who work in high performance cultures do things differently and one of those things is how they talk about performance.

Five performance truths

The brutal reality of high performance life – this is what you need to know

  1. Useful performance conversations are about performance, not about results . They’re focused on doing the things you need to do to get the results you want.
  2. Useful performance conversations help you understand your winning recipe. They should focus on what you’ve done to get the result, so that you know what the important ingredients are that you’ll want to repeat. So you know what to do to win again.
  3. They’re driven by a desire to improve. The shared mindset is about constantly striving to be better. Information is shared to understand what’s worked better and what needs to happen again to deliver results. That’s more important than any personal agendas.
  4. They’re conversations, they’re frequent and they’re in the moment. In a high performance culture, performance conversations are constant. People don’t wait for set times to share information which might help them get better. You hear quick and constant dialogue where people are talking about performance – sharing and asking for information. They’re also conversations, not lectures.
  5. They fuel motivation. By sharing information that matters and talking about shared purpose, people are connecting. By exploring what’s worked and delivered wins, confidence is also fuelled. And by focusing on performance – not just results – the sense of being in control is high.

Three things to do

  1. Check in with your mindset. Is it in the right place to start having useful performance focused conversations? If it’s not, then change it. Without the right mindset, the rest is just lip-service.
  2. Lay the foundations with others. If you’re going to start having effective performance conversations with others, make sure you have a shared language and understanding. Don’t just assume you have.
  3. Get great at being curious, asking good performance questions and listening. If you’re going to be great at having performance conversations, you’d be asking lots, listening lots and probably giving very little advice. Some solid coaching skills are useful if you’re going to be leading lots of these conversations.


You’ll also find the Sharpen your performance speak tool useful, and you might want to dip into the High impact high performance coaching kitbag too.

Nicola’s story

Nicola is a senior leader in a big insurance business. She leads a team of really capable people who were all great at their jobs. But it really frustrated her that much of the conversations that they were having weren’t helping them get better. They didn’t seem to be learning much – the team made the same mistakes over and over again and when they did deliver well, they didn’t seem to be able to repeat the same success. People in the team also seemed a bit reluctant to tell each other when they didn’t agree with something or when they knew that a poor result had been a result of poor preparation or execution. They were too nice to each other.

With the help of a performance expert, Nicola decided to take a different approach. She started to lead some conversations that focused in detail about what they’d done when they’d achieve or exceeded a goal, and recorded all that information. In individual conversations she stopped talking about results so much and got curious about what people were doing to get the results. At the end of a month of this, when asked, the team said they’d noticed that they were thinking about and understanding what was helping them win – individually and as a team. With Nicola’s guidance they worked out some principles for having better conversations focused on performance not results. And pretty soon they were doing more of the stuff that they were getting results with, more consistently. And they all felt much more motivated and tighter as a team. Though Stuart’s halitosis remains an issue.