Have you ever realized that the conversations you have with employees are actually negotiations? A negotiation, according to Merriam-Webster’s definition, involves conference, discussion and compromise.

In the current job market, it’s rare for someone to stay with the same company through their entire career. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that employees average 4.2 years with one company.

In a very real sense, you’re negotiating with someone who isn’t necessarily bound to you for the long term. Your employees are more like entrepreneurs than people who are tied to the company. 

Even for someone that lasts a long time with your company, you’re both providing value to each other, and every performance-oriented conversation you have revolves around pinpointing that value. Everyone wants to grow. No one wants to be a second-stringer. Your conversations with your employees have to revolve around making them want to do better.

I spoke to Mark Raffan, founder of Negotiations Ninja, about this. Negotiations Ninja is built on his experience over years of practice doing coaching and training for C-suite executives. Raffan’s recently spent more time digging into this concept of negotiating with employees.

Emphasize the ‘Win-Win’ In Everything

When you’re having a performance conversation with an employee, it can be fairly uncomfortable at times. If the employee has been underperforming and you’re being honest about where they can bring their performance up, it can be difficult.

But when you leave the room, you’re both going back to desks working for the same company. You have to be able to relate to each other, be cordial and get the work done. What will make that happen?

You have to emphasize something greater.

“When you talk performance, it’s easy to get focused on the negative,” says Raffan.

“I had Tim Cronin from Florida Blue on my podcast recently and he said something that stuck with me: emphasize the power of we. Whatever the conversation is, you have to keep it focused on how both you and they can benefit.”

That takes some understanding of the employee and what they find valuable. The overall vision of the organization, if the employee is there for that, is something that can be the common ground. Or maybe it’s personal growth. Or maybe they’re there for financial incentive.

Whatever it is, find that thing and show how it benefits both you and them to do better.

“Sometimes I think we can treat employees like they care about the company the same way we do, and that’s just not going to be the case,” says Raffan. “Finding the greater purpose they have and linking to it is a great way to help them raise their performance.”

Clarity Is Key — Always

If you want to make things better for both you and your employees, you’re going to need to be clear. Sometimes you might think in a negotiation that you should hold things back, but it’s more beneficial to utilize the principle of reciprocity and lay some cards out on the table.

Make sure it’s completely and utterly clear what’s expected of the employee, what you need, how they can help, and what’s in it for them.

“Too often executives think they’ve been clear with the employee, but they really haven’t been,” Raffan notes. “We all think we’re better communicators than we are. Make sure that you hit the points that you want to get across clearly, then reiterate them at the end. And listen to what they have to say in return — you’ll be more successful if you’re clear on what they think, feel and believe too.”

Be Authentic

It’s crucial to be authentic with your employees when you’re negotiating on performance. That doesn’t mean being buddy-buddy with them — there’s still the boss-employee relationship there. 

But the concept of “radical candor” is important. Your employees need to know you care, and part of that care is being willing to tell them things they need to hear.

“I really like this concept of radical candor, because there’s the part about caring about them, but in a way that you’ll say what they need to hear and they’ll listen,” says Raffan.

“If they don’t know that you care about them, you’ll only offend them with brutal honesty. But if you’re all empathy and never willing to tell them something that they might not want to hear, they’ll never grow. You need to care enough to be honest, and they need to know it’s coming from a good place.”

Tell them what they’ve done well. Tell them what they could work on. Make sure both parts are there, and ground it in the vision that they have for their future.

And you can’t fake caring for your employees. These people are helping your company succeed. They’re coming to work every day backing and supporting the work you do. Part of your job is to show them that you appreciate it. You have to create a sense of belonging.

A good performance conversation is a negotiation — you’re setting expectations for the future, helping your employees realize where they’re doing well, laying out a clear win-win situation, and setting expectations for the future.

Emphasize these three areas and better employee performance is right around the corner.