Effective performance management is vital for maintaining a healthy workplace.

Please note, this information is intended as a guide only. Any industrial advice or a course of action should be checked with your manager, or referred to WorkSafe Victoria, the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and IndustryFair Work AustraliaArtsLaw, or a relevant peak body.

Not many people enjoy performance management. There are many reasons why performance management can be so problematic in the arts – maybe it’s fear of confrontation (we can do it if we have a script and an audience and if we’re in character, but the notion of genuinely addressing a perceived performance issue is terrifying to most of our managers!). Maybe it’s because we might be managing friends. Perhaps there’s a lack of formal management structure, so performance management feels a bit weird. Whatever it is, hopefully these tips will help put you on the path to effective performance management.

When performance management is perceived as daunting, we tend to avoid it for as long as possible. We would rather employ new people, bring on a contractor to fill the gap, go over budget, work our good talent into the ground or take on their work ourselves, rather than have an honest conversation. Throw into the mix that we may be performance managing people we know well, or are friends with outside of work, and performance management becomes entirely overwhelming.

Why do we avoid conflict?

Team members seek to avoid conflict for many reasons including:

  • Fear of aggression or risk of violation of a boundary
  • Dealing with conflict is outside of our comfort zone
  • Fear of embarrassment
  • Worn out trying to resolve something
  • Belief that the issue can’t be resolved
  • Belief that the issue will solve itself

Often, the underlying symptom of these fears and/or beliefs is a lack of mutual respect and trust in a relationship.  Where this is present in the workplace, you may see team members exhibiting the following behaviours:

  • Not speaking the truth about themselves or others
  • Not admitting their limitations
  • Being hesitant to disagree with others even if they know the decision is wrong
  • Not having a high commitment to decisions
  • Not seeing themselves on the same team

In March 2017, attendees of a Creative People Management workshop were asked, “what do you find difficult about performance management?” See if you resonate with some of their answers:

  • Worry about the impact that it might have on the team member
  • Fear about the reaction from the team member
  • Avoid it because it’s a short conversation that leads to a long process
  • Team member can think they’re the most important thing in the world and nobody else exists, so not interested in performance management
  • Don’t want to performance manage friends
  • They do really good work, so the rest of the behaviour is excused
  • Fear of the response of defensiveness
  • Worried about damaging someone’s ego
  • People are so invested in their work in the arts that they take any performance management very personally
  • Difficulties managing casual team members – you might only see them on shift, and there’s no time to implement performance management
  • Doing performance management is uncomfortable
  • The reaction and the impact are both unpredictable
  • There are so many constraints on managers’ time
  • Starting performance management is the start of a massive investment and will have a massive impact, and potentially a massive cost to you as well

Regular performance appraisal is your preventative treatment, with performance management being your remedial solution. Instead of waiting for your yearly or half-yearly reviews for that awkward conversation where you raise a performance issue, dedicate 15 minutes each fortnight or even each month to asking your people to self-reflect on their performance (how they accomplished something as well as what was achieved). They may surprise you, and, at the very least, it cultivates a space in which they can self-reflect.

Consider adopting a philosophy of the “no surprise” rule in performance reviews. This helps reduce the fear surrounding performance reviews – there shouldn’t be any big curve balls in a formal performance review. A team member (including the manager instigating the performance management) should never fear feeling chastised or humiliated, shamed or blamed. If you would like to raise a performance issue, speak respectfully and objectively from your perspective. If you feel that your words may be perceived as judgemental, consider softening them with “I feel as though” or “I see it like this”. Useful phrases and questions may include:

  • Tell me about what you’ve achieved in the last x weeks.
  • What has helped you to be at your most creative?
  • What are the behaviours/values you’ve been particularly proud of in how you’ve achieved those goals?
  • What do you think you could have done differently or improved?
  • What do you plan to achieve in the next x days/weeks?
  • Are there any barriers to you achieving this?
  • What can I do to support you?
  • Have you felt supported to take risks?
  • How is work going in general? (Be sure to listen. This is a space for reflection on wellbeing, dynamics, private issues which may be impacting work etc.)
  • What is challenging for you right now?
  • What is overwhelming or frustrating in your current work?
  • How are you contributing to good mental health and wellbeing in the workplace?
  • How are your colleagues contributing to good mental health and wellbeing in the workplace?
  • What’s a mistake that you’ve made and how did you fix it / do you need help to fix it?
  • Is there anything about your role that you are finding particularly challenging that can be improved or changed?
  • Is there training or professional development available that will help you perform your role more effectively?
  • Have you received useful and constructive feedback from your manager on your performance to date?
  • Do you feel any hesitations in approaching your manager with any issues you may have?

Looking after yourself

Make sure you take the time to prepare yourself prior to undertaking performance management. What is it that you are afraid of? Even if you are not yet performance managing any of your team members, take the time to jot down some notes against the question, “When faced with managing performance, I am scared of…”

Often, we are scared of how people will respond. Common responses include:

Catastrophising and panic

Possible responses:

  • Using emotion not reason in speech
  • Crying, shouting, hysteria
  • Jumping to conclusions

Possible approaches:

  • Listen. Allow the team member to have their say and to feel heard.
  • Look out for ‘all or nothing thinking’, e.g. words such as “always”, “never”, and reassure that your conversation will focus on specific issues, not ‘every’ issue, or ‘all the time’.
  • Reinforce the aim of a positive outcome and raise a range of outcomes (e.g. increased support, professional development, training, shift in workload).
  • Encourage the person to make a distinction between a difficult or unpleasant conversation one day, and an extreme response (e.g. “the end of my career”).

Useful phrases:

  • “I am sorry you are upset. Can I explain what I think has happened from my perspective? Then we can work this out together.”
  • “If I understand correctly, you are upset because [you feel the team has turned against you / I don’t have confidence in your abilities / you feel like you work harder than everyone else / you feel unsupported]. Is that right?”
  • “Would you like to take a break and continue this conversation in 5/10/15 minutes?”

Rejection and withdrawal

Possible responses:

  • Flat out denial
  • Saying a behaviour is ‘just the way I am’, or ‘not that big a deal’
  • Silence

Possible approaches:

  • Avoid accusing a team member of being ‘in denial’. Find ways to accept what has been raised in order to move forward.
  • Listen. Be comfortable with silence – you don’t need to try persuading or convincing your team member that something is wrong to fill the silence.
  • Focus on the behaviour and/or the issue at hand, not the person.
  • Focus on the impact of the behaviour on the team to emphasise that it might not be a big deal to the person, but it is to their team.
  • Consider sharing what the team appreciates/enjoys about working with that person.

Useful phrases:

  • “I feel the organisation is working on improving [process, system, culture]. What other approaches would you like to see?”
  • “What is important to you in the workplace?”
  • “I would like your input into ways that we can improve this [project, report, scene, design].”
  • “What did you want to achieve when you did that [project, scene, design, email, report, presentation]?”

Aggression and blame

Possible responses:

  • Adding people to the drama by including other team members (e.g. “We all feel this way”)
  • Finding fault or denying fault (e.g. “It’s not my fault that management aren’t supportive”)
  • Blaming (e.g. “If Box Office/swings/management did this, then I wouldn’t have to…”)
  • Yelling, shouting or becoming violent.

Possible approaches:

  • Always consider your own safety first – if an employee becomes aggressive, ask them to leave using calm verbal and nonverbal communication, seek assistance from other team members, or call the police (for more information, see download below, A Guide for Employers- Preventing and responding to work-related violence by WorkSafe Victoria).
  • Encourage responsibility as empowerment – reminding team members that they can’t change the behaviour of others, they can only change themselves.
  • Ask for suggestions around process or system improvements that would have avoided a problem (e.g. a central calendar of events so each person knows what shows are when and can’t blame others for not sharing that information).
  • Be accountable if there are genuine mistakes that you have made. Take responsibility and ownership and offer a solution/remedy – always focus on the learning from the mistake.

Useful phrases:

  • “What behaviours do you expect from [colleagues, management, artists, performers]?”
  • “Is there a way that you could have pre-empted that mistake?”
  • “What could be done in the future to avoid that happening?”
  • “Have you spoken to x about this yet?”
  • “What would you like to see happen next?”


Possible responses:

  • Offended and insulted (e.g. “How dare you criticise me?”)
  • Push back (“But this is who I am, I’m a creative person”)
  • Expressing the notion that work is ‘who I am’

Possible approaches:

  • Ensure ‘creativity’ is not simply an excuse for bad behaviour.
  • Be specific. If you tell someone they’re doing a terrible job or that they’re a bad director, there’s little they can do and getting upset is probably a natural response! If you are specific about the behaviour and the impact of that behaviour, the feedback does not attack someone’s personality or creativity as a whole entity.
  • If a team member expresses the notion that work is ‘who they are’, ask your team member about their values and how their work represents those intrinsic values. Remind them that they are more than this one project / moment / show. Consider discussing previous experiences and what they learnt, or what they would like to see happen in the future to reduce the impact of this moment being everything.
  • Look for solutions together. You are both aiming to achieve something – look for a way of sharing a solution.
  • Consider a strengths-based approach. Many strengths can have a ‘flip-side’ weakness (e.g. someone is highly persuasive, but as a result, they can sometimes be too dominating in discussions), so look for ways to affirm strengths.

Useful phrases

  • “Yesterday I noticed that xyz. This means that [describe impact].” For example, “Yesterday I noticed that you were an hour late to rehearsals. We really missed you in that hour and I’m worried it’s put us behind schedule.”
  • “You are really good at [strengths, e.g. deciding on a plan of action / coming up with innovative and creative ideas ]. Sometimes this means that [flip-side challenge, e.g. people can be left behind when decisions are made / some details are missed].”

Informal Performance Management: ACTION LIST

GIVE FEEDBACK OFTEN: Provide constructive feedback frequently. Immediate conversations on the job are more effective than yearly reviews. However, make sure that you are in a private area so the discussion is confidential. If you have ‘negative’ feedback, try open questioning to see if you can encourage the employee to identify what they could do differently next time. Your team member will be more likely to adopt an approach if they have come to it themselves.

IMPROVE: The objective of performance management is to improve not to ‘manage out’. This means that support and mentoring are important to enable a change in performance. This is your responsibility as manager. Think about informal and formal networks which will present good examples and challenge thinking; consider management and leadership books or websites; or try role-playing various organisational scenarios so that people have a safe opportunity to practice new skills and approaches.

SET EXPECTATIONS: Set concrete expectations around the level of performance you expect. Be as specific as possible and ensure that you keep a record of your conversations to provide clarity. Use positive feedback to promote and praise the behaviours and work outputs that you would like to see repeated. No one comes to work to do a bad job.

PROMOTE WELLBEING: Behaviour and attitude is a key influence on performance and productivity. This is why general wellbeing is such an important building block for team success. Help your team understand that how they deliver service is as significant as what they deliver.

Key Takeaways

  • Practice feedback regularly (both giving and receiving)
  • Be aware of your own fear of confrontation
  • Be hard on the issue, soft on the person
  • Get help and support from your manager, or a trusted mentor

Please note, this information is intended as a guide only. Any industrial advice or a course of action should be checked with your manager, or referred to WorkSafe Victoria, the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and IndustryFair Work AustraliaArtsLaw, or a relevant peak body.