Awkward, uncomfortable, a painful necessity… these are some of the common ways employees and employers describe performance-related conversations.

For employers, it’s a careful balancing act of identifying strengths, and giving constructive feedback without offending. A task that’s often easier said than done.

But the NeuroLeadership Institute, writing for Quartz at Work, has a refreshing take on performance conversations. It believes that when these conversations are improved, interactions between managers and employees become opportunities to inspire growth and learning, and cultivate workplace engagement.

All performance conversations fall under one of six categories: feedback, goal setting, check-ins, end-of-year, compensation and career. Each type of conversation can be improved through the use of three neuroscience-based principles: minimise social threat, focus on continuous growth and facilitate insight.

1. Minimise social threat

One of the key reasons performance chats aren’t effective is because they’re scary. When a manager addresses a worker’s performance, it can trigger the ‘threat state’ in the brain, impairing its ability to think clearly. In this ‘fight or flight’ mode, recommendations go in one ear and out the other.

Far better is to lower threat by building a ‘culture of feedback’ where employers encourage staff to ask managers for feedback, rather than wait to receive it. A study by the institute found that requested feedback is far less threatening that unsolicited feedback. It puts the employee in charge, giving them a sense of control and relaxing the brain so they’re able to take the feedback on board.

2. Focus on continuous growth

Nothing takes a hit on motivation levels like focusing on all the ways an employee has ‘failed’ during a performance conversation. Instead, managers should identify ways that employees can learn quicker and become more resilient, while making sure they see their mistakes as chances to grow and develop.

Performance conversations should be framed around a growth mindset. They should focus ‘not just on results, but effort; not just on achievements, but learning, growth and development over time,’ the article explains. In this way, progress and outcomes become mutually reinforcing.

3. Facilitate insight

A key challenge during performance conversations is making staff feel ownership over their work, so it inspires them to accept and implement feedback with the same motivation as if it were their own business. That’s why the institute suggests that employers should view conversations as chances to ask questions that inspire employees to generate creative insights of their own.

An insight is that ‘aha moment’ when you make a link, spot a pattern or identify a solution to a problem that’s been perplexing you for a long time. When insights occur, the brain’s chemistry can shift: dopamine levels can increase and you may feel a positive emotional charge that leads to greater excitement, engagement and motivation.

Managers can inspire insights through telling less and asking more – and in particular, by asking questions that encourage employees to reflect on their own goals.

What’s your experience of performance conversations? Have you found a unique way to make them work for your company?