This is David’s second blog in a three-part series about ongoing performance management conversations. Be sure to read his first post to learn how to get managers to have ongoing performance conversations with employees.
My first blog about performance management conversations addressed the question of how organizations can get managers to have ongoing conversations with employees. That’s the first phase of developing a culture of continuous coaching and development. The next phase is to make sure those conversations are effective.
It seems a bit strange to be telling managers how to have a conversation. However, we know that if they don’t get beyond the classic, “How are things going?” exchange, then an organization won’t reach its performance management goals.
We know there are real challenges for managers when it comes to discussing performance-related items with employees. For one, managers often say they don’t have enough time. With this in mind, for conversations with employees to be effective at all, a little planning can go a long way. Here are three tips to help managers have meaningful conversations with employees.
Tips for having meaningful, ongoing performance conversation with employees
Tip 1: Go into the conversation with a purpose
The manager–employee conversation is more likely to be effective if the manager goes into it with a purpose. What might that purpose be? Well, let’s think back to the different things we hope ongoing performance management will accomplish:
- Setting direction and discussing goals
- Coaching on how to achieve a goal
- Giving feedback on a performance (a recent specific incident)
- Helping the employee develop their skills
- Helping the employee with their career goals
A manager might keep this list of topics in a notebook or an online performance management tool and think “Ok, I’m going to have a conversation with Maria today about my priorities for the department and how she feels her goals fit into that.” Or, “Today I’ll ask Jon if he’s having trouble with any of his goals and then ask how I can help.”
These purpose directed conversations are more likely to have an impact on performance than the usual “How’s it going?” routine because they address specific items that are part of the employee’s day-to-day responsibilities at work.
Tip 2: Mix it up
I’ll set the stage for this tip with an obvious statement: Formulas and equations are extremely valuable for planning purposes and to help solve problems. However, when it comes to conversations about employee performance, be cautious when touting a “formula for success”. Remember, it’s a conversation between two people. The frequency of these conversations is part of the formula. What a manager and employee discuss and the manner in which they discuss it doesn’t have to be so rigid.
Ed Catmull, CEO of Pixar, once said that it’s hard to have effective after-action-review conversations on an ongoing basis. After they have done a few of these reviews, employees develop safe rote answers to the questions. Catmull observed, and I’m sure you did, too, that if you use a formula for questions, you will eventually end up with formulaic answers. Catmull’s solution was to mix up the questions and style of the meetings. The same goes for managers. If managers want to have a good exchange during ongoing performance conversations, they need to mix things up.
Tip 3: Ask yourself if it’s working
Self-appraisals are important to the performance evaluation process. For one, completing a self-appraisal allows employees to learn from events that took place over the past year. Employees can learn what went well, what didn’t go well, what can be improved on, and what they hope to achieve in the future. We can all learn something about reflecting on the past, so managers should do the same when it comes to the conversations they have with employees.
There are all kinds of things that can go wrong — or go right — with ongoing performance conversations. Managers need to be constantly asking themselves, “Did the conversation I just had add any value?” If it did, then notice what made it work. If it didn’t, then change something.
Managers can learn how to have effective conversations with employees about performance
It's not necessarily that hard to have effective performance conversations, but it does take at least a little training. HR can support managers by providing training and learning aids such as emails messages that remind managers of the conversational tools they have at their disposal.
Long ago, I wrote an article titled “Conversation is technology”. I used that phrase to remind people that even though conversation is the most everyday of human interactions it's also a sophisticated technology. We should treat it with the same respect we treat any complex technology.
If your new approach to performance management depends on effective conversations, then be sure to give your managers the training and support they need.