The Five Conversations Framework

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Yes, it’s that time of year again—when the groans of managers and employees can be heard over the mere mention of the words, annual performance reviews. Many managers and employees see performance appraisals as nothing more than an empty, bureaucratic exercise imposed upon them by HR. 

The Five Conversations Framework is an alternative approach to the traditional performance review. It shifts the emphasis from performance appraisal to performance development. The framework saves time, is more useful, and a more positive, enjoyable experience for both manager and team member.

The one-way power dynamic of the traditional performance review means that it easily descends into a monologue rather than a dialogue. This is despite the manager’s best intention. It generally is of little benefit to either the employee or their manager. Insteadbased on dialogue—the Five Conversations Framework is another approach that dispenses with the 14– page bureaucratic report accompanying the traditional appraisal. It leads to a more collaborative exchange.

When challenged, defenders of the traditional performance review are unable to give a compelling—or even satisfactory—reason to continue with them. Most managers believe, nonetheless, that they need to conduct annual or bi-annual performance appraisals with their staff. Yet they also acknowledge that the system isn’t working. HR and L & D professionals are caught up in their own quandary. They must train managers to competently conduct appraisals, but acknowledge that the old approach is defunct. Nobody is strongly committed to the old process.

Unsurprisingly, there is currently considerable chatter in the blogosphere about whether the performance appraisal should be abolished, refined, or left alone. And if we eradicated the performance review, what replaces it? Managers understandably are seeking answers to the perennial challenges of getting the best from people in their role at work.

My research across a range of industries reveals the following shortcomings of the standard performance review:

  • They are often a monologue rather than a dialogue
  • The formality of the appraisal stifles discussion
  • Performance review are rarely followed up
  • Performance reviews can be destructive
  • Appraisals are an exercise in form filing
  • Most people find the appraisal stressful
  • They are a costly exercise
  • The infrequency of reviews

These findings—found in The End of the Performance Review: A New Approach to Appraising Employee Performancereinforce the idea of a new approach.

Performance feedback is still important. In fact, it is one of the most important things a manager should be doing. Organisational psychologists point out the importance of feedback and its link to performance improvement and motivation. You would be hard pressed to find a book on management and leadership that doesn’t extol the virtues of timely, tactful, and specific feedback on performance. Performance feedback is fundamentally important.

The Five Conversations Framework responds to this move from performance appraisal to performance development. As we appreciate the value of human capital in the modern workplace more and more, fresh insights and new approaches to developing people at work are worth considering.

Essentially, The Five Conversations Framework it is based on five conversations every six months between the manager and his or her employees.

Let’s look at each conversation briefly.


Climate review conversation

A climate review is about determining the current atmosphere in a workplace. It’s mainly concerned with employees’ job satisfaction, morale, and communication. Although people’s opinion about these matters can—and often do—fluctuate over the course of a year, it can be useful to take a snapshot of the business occasionally. By having a conversation with direct reports about the state of the current climate, managers have a handle on the current climate of the business, and what needs to be done to improve the fundamentals of satisfaction, morale, and communication. Listening and responding to this feedback is a good place to start.

Strengths and talents conversation

Most appraisals are fixated with what’s going wrong. They focus on weaknesses and by-pass strengths and talents. Tom Rath, in the # 1 Wall Street Journal bestseller: Strengths Finder 2.0 underscores the value of a conversation on this subject:

Society’s relentless focus on people’s shortcomings has turned into a global obsession. What’s more, we have discovered that people have several times more potential for growth when they invest energy in developing their strengths instead of correcting their deficiencies.

Apart from being a positive place to start discussing performance, this conversation is designed to capitalise on people’s innate talents. The positive psychology movement has pushed the idea that concentrating on strengths has a higher payoff then working at overcoming weaknesses.

Opportunities for growth conversation

This conversation invites the employee to reflect how they can improve their own work performance in key result areas. This may lead to an alignment of perspectives between manager and team member. A dual understanding of performance standards is an important first step. The second step is to agree upon some tangible ways of improving performance to match these expectations. And thirdly, this conversation can bring into line performance expectations will the strategic direction of the business.

Learning and development conversation

The learning and development conversation builds upon the two previous conversations. What can learning experiences maximise strengths and lift performance in critical areas? Learning and development—as we both know—is more than sending people off to the latest course on such-n-such. The conversation covers both formal and informal learning opportunities. It should also cover what I refer to as the three dimensions of learning:

  • Technical-centred
  • Personcentered
  • Problem-centered

All three dimensions are important in adopting an eclectic approach to human resource development.

Innovation and continuous improvement conversation

This conversation is about practical ways and means of improving the efficiency and effectiveness and the business in general. Whereas, the learning and development conversation is about improving the individual, the innovation and continuous improvement conversation is about improving the organization. What can we do to advance organisationally? is the focus here. Imagine for a moment the power of this conversation occurring across an organisation during a month. Some of the ideas that surface will undoubtedly be too costly or impractical. But some would also be worth considering.

Each of these five conversations ought to take no more than 15 minutes. Being thematically-based, they’re focused and therefore need not take a considerable amount of time.

Being more relaxed and conversational, compared with the rigid and sometimes awkward traditional appraisal, the framework minimises the power dynamic of the manager-employee relationship. The manager still asked questions to guide the conversation. But in this process, the manager’s role is converser and facilitator, not appraiser and assessor.

If managers are giving timely, regular, clear, and constructive feedback, why down tools once or twice a year to do a performance review? And if managers are not frequently conversing with their staff, an annual review is hardly likely to help.

Instead of tinkering at the edgessuch as contemplating the merits of using a four or five-point ratings scale—learning professionals would be best served to promote a culture of development rather than an appraisal.