Holding an effective performance conversation - improving managers' confidence

My work in recent times has included providing learning events and workshops for organisations that have performance management systems and frameworks in place and have wished to train managers and staff as a means to support their implementation. The focus of the learning has varied, some on the frameworks themselves and some on skills for managers, as when it comes to "execution", i.e. staff and managers holding effective performance conversations and managers feeling confident about it, things don't always go according to plan.  In fact, things sometimes don't "go" at all.

Common challenges I've come across

  • Staff don't understand fully or sufficiently how they fit in and the bigger picture within which they are working; it has not always been explained, or at least not fully enough.  The external and internal landscapes for public sector organisations I work with changes very rapidly, adding to this challenge.  It can weaken training outcomes if the context isn't understood.
  • Managers don't feel confident or skilled at holding performance conversations, providing skilled feedback, receiving skilled feedback (even less).  This is especially so when it is a "tough" conversation.  
  • Organisations operate performance management frameworks and systems that don't always match day to day on the job realities that people share in the training room.  In addition, whilst monitoring tasks and activities is recognised and usually accepted, being able to monitor and assess behaviours is perceived as far more difficult.  Here I meet resistance.
  • Performance managing people is part of a wider day job for managers - they have their own workload as well as people management responsibilities; they are the "squeezed middle".
  • Time pressures - less resources, less people but higher demands from customers, colleagues, senior leaders and the need to manage, in public sector work, customer and elected member expectations.
  • Learning by choice versus mandatory for all. 
    • If organisations provide training for managers in delivering aspects of performance management, such as holding effective conversations, it is often a choice as to whether a manager undertakes the learning or not.  It presumes there is a self assessment and/or development plan, followed by line manager discussion and a commitment to learn formally. 
    • I have over the years provided training for managers that has been "mandatory" for all, and there are buy-in issues. 
    • Whether either route to this learning works sufficiently well and gives the outcome that is desired I do wonder.  Managers still need to take responsibility and feel confident and able to do it, however.  My experience is that some managers avoid crucial conversations and others won't do it, others can't or don't feel confident. In other words, there are varied reasons as to why managers don't spend time learning and practising the skills to help them be effective regardless of the route.
    • If it's not mandatory, those managers who most need up-skilling can think they are doing a great job already and don't see it as a learning need.  Staff who attend my influencing skills workshops or dealing with conflict sessions regularly cite their manager as the person they wish to have a better relationship with.  If managers also find performance management is time consuming and not an integrated part of how they hold conversations and manage people, then it is on the side lines as a "must do when I have the time".

Training managers in the skills they need at a greater depth to take hold of conversations, make them purposeful and include effective feedback would make a tremendous difference.  Whilst 70-20-10 enables organisations to provide this flexibly, in time and in accessible formats, I believe there is value in having focused classroom based learning so managers can learn and practice together as peer learners. 

Here are some points about what a purposeful and successful performance conversation could look like and be used to help managers improve or enhance this role, and with a pointer to the skills and knowledge needed.

Key elements of an effective 1-2-1 performance conversation

  1. Feedback - providing feedback skillfully on progress and performance; receiving feedback skillfully and being open to learn in the conversation.  No brainer - feedback skills training is a must!
  2. Exchange of views - a purposeful exchange about what has happened, how someone can improve their performance, the support they need from the manager/others and development needs.  A manager needs to learn how to remain assertive with positive intent, be able to facilitate and listen actively.
  3. Positive intent and focus - noting what has been accomplished constructively, with specific examples, drawing out the importance of how things could be improved further; ensuring effort is directed at value-added activities and line up with priorities.  This is about active listening and providing skilled feedback again, but also learning emotional intelligence,self awareness and the ability to manage conflict in the moment.
  4. Learning - making sure learning (on the job, formal, informal, social, peer learning) is taking place and how it has aided doing the job.  Managers here need to understand how people learn, what the stretch would be for an individual, apply NLP (a distinct value added). 
  5. Measurement - monitoring performance against targets and SMART goals.  Applying this to behaviours as well as tasks.  A manager needs skills of understanding goal setting (including SMART at a meaningful level), how to identify a well formed outcome, knowledge of the bigger picture and operational landscape, organisational values; in addition, being able to identify for different individuals the "performance requirement".

Practice, practice

No one has an innate ability to do this.  It requires learning and practice as it would any skill.  Classroom based safe practice and work based peer learning is great for this.  Improving skills leads to improved confidence in capability, and hopefully, better performance conversations.