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How to Improve Performance Through Conversation

School leaders need a broad set of skills to succeed. Knowing how to talk to teachers about improving their performance falls near the top of the list—yet it’s one of the most commonly overlooked.

The oversight could be the reason many principals are stressed out. Studies spanning multiple countries have found that education leaders experience more psychological strain than nearly any other profession. Some experts attribute the phenomenon to school leaders experiencing elevated levels of emotional conflict at work and, as a result, more burnout.

Most school principals start out as teachers who, by nature, tend to be “not confrontational in nature,” says Chett Daniel, founder of K12 HR Solutions. “When preparing for how to have difficult conversations with teachers, the fear of an employee becoming defensive and the potential of a strained working relationship can prevent school leaders from engaging in honest feedback that is needed to improve district performance.

Principals who are averse to conflict tend to put off giving feedback if they think the conversation will be tense or uncomfortable. And when they finally deliver it, they run the risk of distorting the message or sugarcoating poor performance to smooth over the difficult interaction.

“The result is a message that fails to address the performance problem and will most likely fail to result in improved performance,” Daniel said. “The need to provide nearly unconditional positive feedback can result in ignoring glaring indicators of needed improvement.”

Since a principal’s ability to spur teachers toward greatness is directly linked to student learning outcomes, it’s increasingly critical that school leaders learn to skillfully navigate performance-related conversations. And the first step is to engage in them—often. Talking about performance as part of your everyday conversations helps create a culture of excellence.

As the director of certificated human resources for Palm Springs Unified, Tony Signoret is an expert at conducting conversations that drive teacher improvement. His advice:

Prepare for employee resistance

To shield themselves from criticism, employees often resort to defensive or proactive avoidance behaviors. For example, they may try to “dodge the feedback bullet by escaping from scenarios in which they are likely to receive negative feedback,” says management expert Sherry Moss. These may include:

  • Avoiding eye contact and conversation with supervisors.
  • Diverting conversation away from performance-related issues.
  • Highlighting successes while downplaying problems.
  • Attempting to cover up evidence of poor performance.
  • Distancing themselves from supervisors or withdraw from the work environment.

When finally cornered for conversation, employees may become defensive or even go on the attack. “A supervisor can anticipate there will be pushback when having a crucial conversation, such as stating the evaluator is acting vindictively; accusing the evaluator of not acting upon previous or similar issues with other employees; or establishing past behavior as acceptable,” Signoret says.

By anticipating these tactics in advance, school leaders can formulate strategies for disrupting them and maintaining control of the conversation.

Gather your evidence

Conversations aimed at improving performance are emotionally loaded and can easily become heated. It’s up to school leaders to keep things positive and constructive. Before having a crucial conversation, Signoret says, it’s important to establish parameters and norms for the meeting, such as topics to be covered and standards for professional behavior.

He recommends writing an evidence-based narrative—a type of structured feedback consisting of a clear one- or two-sentence opening statement followed by a brief narrative that supplies supportive evidence—to help guide the discussion.

Highlighting the need for improvement with concrete data and specific observations “takes the ‘opinion’ out of the topic at hand and provides the evidence to support the issue.” It also provides talking points to help you keep the conversation on track.

As you collect supporting data, resist the temptation to compare the employee’s performance to that of their co-workers. Measure them against objective standards instead.

Establish talking points

Talking points are a valuable tool for staying focused when employees try to derail the conversation in hopes of deflecting the message.

“A common pushback strategy from [those being evaluated] is to ‘throw the spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks,’ Signoret says. When defensive employees bring up every topic they can think of to sidetrack their supervisor, leaders need to be able to resist taking the bait.

Otherwise, they risk finding themselves “30 minutes into a discussion wondering to themselves why they are defending their decision regarding a professional development training they did for the staff a year ago, when they should be discussing the employee’s poor classroom management as observed in last week’s lesson.”

Ideally, your talking points should be simple messages distilled from your evidence-based narrative. If possible, limit yourself to three or four. But the most important thing is to keep them simple and clear.

Frontload the conversation

When discussing performance improvements, even the best-laid plans can go awry in the face of employee opposition. Frontload the conversation by delivering the most important information first. Save the details for when you’ve gotten their attention.

That way if you do get sidetracked, you’ll at least have gotten the main gist of the problem across.

“Frontloading the conversation is crucial for any effective conversation—especially those that may be considered ‘crucial,’ ” Signoret says.

End with a plan

A conversation can’t be effective at improving performance unless it offers the employee a way forward. End your discussion with clear and actionable next steps for rectifying the problem.

“Wrapping up with clearly defined directives and expectations for future performance is crucial,” Signoret says. Write them down beforehand so you’ll have a list to refer to.

Be specific about what steps will be taken and when, and document it all in an improvement plan. When asking an employee to take action, making a reciprocal commitment to take action on your end helps build trust. If an employee needs to develop a certain skill, for instance, commit to providing professional development in that area.

The ability to initiate conversations that drive educators toward excellence can mean the difference between success and mediocrity.

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