Earlier this year, we published a report on the factors that inspire high performance. We won’t go into all the details that the research identified - you can read our articles on those here and here - because today we want to talk about the pivot on which all this rests: the manager.
There’s a lot riding on our managers: responsible to the leadership for results; responsible to their people for both performance management and their experience of work. This is why it’s so impressive to see the huge increase in performance conversations. Our research suggests for example, that in the retail industry more than 8 out of 10 workers now have a one-to-one conversation with their line manager every month. We all know how these vital chats can fall by the wayside when the pressure is on (and when isn’t it on?). The fact that they’re happening regularly and consistently is something to celebrate, but the content of these conversations is just as important. There’s a balance to find between the manager’s priorities and those of their people.
The principles of performance management
The key factors which determine how an employee will perform - the performance enablers themselves - are broadly split into two categories. These are “formal” - my delivery expectations, my development and my tools - and “informal” - my self, my experience of work and my purpose. Unsurprisingly, managers are more comfortable talking about the former. Structure is reassuring and delivery expectations have structure, with clear timings and results. This is about process. If you have a clear set of rules to follow and specific outcomes to aim for, you have a comforting aura of clarity.
Where it starts to fall down just a little is in the more informal categories. Many managers might wince in horror at the idea of having to talk to an employee about whether they are able to be themself at work or not, or whether their daily tasks give them a sense of purpose. Where’s the structure? How do we measure this? Surely we can only be fair to everyone if everyone is judged in the same way?
Addressing the whole person
Ironically, managers who can only have effective conversations around these more formal areas are doing precisely the thing they wish to avoid. Some employees, it’s true, are better able to mask their concerns around their purpose or their experience of work, which gives them an advantage over those who can’t. If you want your team to give their all - if you want to see the very best of them - then the conversations you have around performance need to address the whole person. Without this perspective, performance management will only be doing half of its job.
If this sounds challenging (and for some managers, terrifying) then the good news is that it’s just as easy to give a framework to these more informal, personal enablers of performance as it is to plot out someone’s deliverables. With the right tools and the right support from the business, it’s perfectly possible to help both managers and people get a more rounded experience of work through broad and inclusive conversations which cover the topics everyone wants to talk about.
4 tips to help your managers have effective one-to-ones
1) Ask the right questions
If this is a two-way conversation then both sides will have talking points. Some businesses make it a matter of policy for employees to set the agenda for these meetings. Alternatively, the manager can prompt the employee to add to the agenda, or simply open up the discussion in the meeting. The right performance management tool will come with a set of questions (which can obviously be tweaked to reflect your own idiosyncratic approach) ensuring that this stuff doesn’t get missed.
2) Track, measure and review
It’s a conversation, yes, but it will also inspire actions and things to review. If you consistently agree on something and then fail to act on it, you’ll put a serious dent in your team’s engagement. Use a tool which will help you capture the content of these valuable discussions and set clear milestones and review dates. Don’t spend valuable time talking to no purpose: make sure this is actionable, measurable and analytics-based performance management.
3) Prepare to step outside your comfort zone
Managers need to be ready to talk about issues such as diversity and inclusion, personal wellness and wellbeing, work-life balance and more. Making the effort to engage on what matters most to your people is one of the marks of a great manager. This is certainly an area where HR can offer support, perhaps by giving some gentle prompts or reading material, but it shouldn’t necessarily be an area that requires lots of specific knowledge: this is about addressing concerns, not rewriting policy.
4) When in doubt, be human
Our research - plus years of experience and plenty of anecdotes - shows us that in the world of performance, managers may often have the will to address these more informal concerns but lack the confidence to do so. We hope we’ve shown that whatever the subject under discussion, there are ways to break it down into simple steps that provide measurable solutions to work-related problems (from helping someone step up to managing poor performance). But it’s always worth remembering that this is, first and foremost, a conversation between two people who want to do their best for each other. This isn’t traditional performance management. Enthusiasm, empathy and energy beat training and policy every day of the week. Wanting to help, showing a willingness to listen and demonstrating action are the ingredients of the not-so-magic formula that builds trust, whether in the workplace or elsewhere. Go into your meeting with those human values as your lodestar and you won’t go far wrong.
Our performance management books, white papers and research eBooks are all available to download from our Resource Hub.