Sick of performance appraisals? Replace them with 5 FOCUSed conversations

By Robert Half on 18 November 2015

For some managers, performance appraisal time is a dreaded period – seen as very difficult and time-consuming. The old school, company centric annual or bi-annual performance appraisal that rates (or worse ranks) employee performance and focuses primarily on areas of improvement is not only unpopular, but research shows it can be ineffective.  

Well-known and respected companies such as Deloitte and Adobe are doing away with their performance appraisal system in favour of regular, structured conversations.

The problem is - most managers don’t talk to their staff enough, don’t talk about the right things or don’t know how to have meaningful conversations.

This is where the 5 FOCUSed Conversation Framework comes in. 

Instead of the formal appraisal process, why not consider a framework for monthly conversations that will not only enhance (or completely replace) the traditional process, but will also address that magical sweet spot of full employee engagement? This is where the needs of the organisation intersect with the needs of the individual employee.  

Even if you don’t want to replace your performance appraisal process, this conversational framework will boost productivity and employee engagement – sometimes significantly.  Below is an outline of these 5 FOCUSed conversations:

FOCUS is an acronym, standing for 

  • Feedback
  • Objectives
  • Career Development
  • Underlying Motivators
  • Strengths

Let’s go through them one by one.


You’d be forgiven if you thought this conversation related to performance feedback – but it doesn’t.  Neuro-scientists say that the human brain cannot process two conflicting emotions at the same time.  So the old ‘Sandwich Method’ (good, bad, good) of delivering tough messages just doesn’t work.  That’s why I use the feedback conversation to deliver only positive messages to the staff member.  Save those performance tune-ups for the objectives conversation (see below).

The feedback conversation consists of three parts:

  • Give praise where praise is due. Studies have shown that a vast majority of employees do not feel appreciated enough for the job they do. Praise, it seems, is a scarce commodity in the workplace. So if your staff are doing a good job, be sure to let them know.
  • Conversely, one of the key factors in employee engagement is the ability to have your say. Be receptive to your employees’ feedback. Who knows, they may just come up with a brilliant idea that makes a huge difference for the team or company.
  • Finally, make sure that you address any organisational updates that may be sensitive or that you need to make sure they understand.


The objectives conversation is your vehicle for performance management. Most performance issues stem from a disconnect between what the manager and the staff member perceive as meeting objectives. To drastically reduce performance issues, managers must both clearly define and articulate expectations.  Yet few do.

Your employees need to know what they must do to be successful in their jobs, and how that success will be measured. You need to have a clearly defined ruler by which to objectively measure performance. Aligning their expectations with yours will result in less frustration and anxiety—from both sides – as well as enhanced performance and productivity.

Great job objectives are:

  1. Outcomes – not tasks:  Therefore any one role will have no more than 3 – 5 outcomes.
  2. Measurable:  Sometimes you need to look at measurements from a higher level, sometimes from a lower one.  But everything should be measurable.
  3. Embed a compelling ‘why’: In order to use objectives as an engagement tool, it’s imperative that you embed the purpose of the role into the objective (or at least the job description).  Every job matters.  Help them understand how they fit into the overall organisation and how what they do impacts the customer, community or their fellow employees.
  4. Written in real language: Many times we dilute the meaning of the objective by trying to use buzzwords or sound sophisticated.  

Career development

In recent Robert Half research, 23% of HR managers stated that the primary motivation for employees leaving an organisation was for further career advancement. Yet, many managers avoid this topic like the plague for 1 of 3 reasons:

  • They don’t understand how to manage their own careers
  • They are afraid that if they help their staff manage their career better they will surpass them on the corporate ladder
  • They are afraid to talk about career development because they don’t feel they can meet the employee’s expectations. This is especially true in smaller companies or niche functions where there is not a lot of vertical career opportunities available. 

Helping staff manage their careers makes good business sense. Ensuring that they understand what opportunities exist within your company (something they may not recognise without your help) will inhibit them looking outside of it. 

Find out what your employees’ priorities are and have open, honest conversations around how your company can help them achieve those priorities—even if that means training them to eventually move on. Help them with specific action plans to achieve their goals.

When they recognise that you are supporting them in reaching their goals they become more loyal to yours and will delay – if not avoid, looking externally while they continue to grow and develop within your organisation. 

Underlying motivators

Research shows that internal or intrinsic motivators do far more to drive employee engagement and productivity than external motivators such as pay and/or benefits. Our job as managers is to provide the environment or stimulus that taps into their intrinsic motivators.  

People respond differently to different motivators. Not only that, people respond differently to praise and recognition. Some respond well to challenge or competition while others shy away from it.  Some respond to public praise while others become embarrassed or irritated. If you want people to want to go the extra mile you need to understand and leverage their individual intrinsic motivators and recognise or reward them appropriately when they do go above and beyond.   


Old school thinking (and the thinking that drives most performance appraisal processes) is that people grow most in the area of their weaknesses.  This has developed into a workplace culture that focuses on what’s wrong instead of what’s right – what they do poorly instead of what they do well.  

Over 50 years of research by Gallup and other organisations refute this thinking.

According to The Gallup Organisation, teams whose members play to their strengths most of the time are:

  • 50% more likely to have low employee turnover
  • 38% more likely to be highly productive
  • 44% more likely to earn high customer satisfaction scores

Strengths can be defined as the innate abilities or behavioural patterns that are neurologically hard-wired into our brains between the ages of 3 and 15. The context of the behaviour will change over time, but the patterns remain the same. So those children who play nice with others and share their toys in the sand pit at the age of 5 may very well become 25 year olds who are the most collaborative in the workplace. 

Strength-identification takes commitment, as does determining how best to leverage those strengths, while managing or mitigating your weaknesses.  But the research shoes that shifting as little as two-hours per week of your duties and responsibilities from weaknesses to strengths can make a world of difference. 

If you can help your staff determine behaviours that come naturally to them and ways to increase activities that require those behaviours – while lessening those in which they are weak – you will find that their stress is decreased, they become more engaged—and of course more productive.  

So how to use these conversations to replace performance appraisals?

  1. Set time aside to have structured conversations with each of your direct reports
  2. Have the feedback conversation monthly
  3. Set robust job objectives with your staff and make sure they understand and buy into them
    • Review these quarterly
    • Hold them accountable monthly and correct along the way
    • Remember, if you need to counsel them on performance, do this in a separate conversation than the Feedback Conversation
  4. Roll the other three conversations into these monthly meetings so that you hit on each 2 – 4 times per year

There are many tools and exercises that can accompany these conversations - specifically ones that you can use to help employees identify their career goals, underlying motivators and strengths and weaknesses.  But the most important step is to start these conversations and to keep them going on a monthly basis.

At first it may seem like a big time commitment, but you will soon realise that you will be trading the time that you spend fire fighting in much more proactive and productive ways.

Kim Seeling Smith is founder of Ignite Global, a training and consultancy firm that helps organisations hire and retain top talent. Kim has also spent 15 years working as an international recruiter and is the author of Mind Reading for Managers: 5 FOCUSed Conversations for Greater Employee Engagement and Productivity and co-author (with Brian Tracy) of 101 Great Ways to Enhance Your Career.  

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