If annual appraisals have a problem - apart from the endless effort spent preparing for them, the difficulty of delivering all that feedback in one session and the challenge of setting achievable, challenging objectives for the entire year to come - it’s that we tend to overthink them. All that pressure to get so much done; all that information captured, distilled and recorded (ironically, to then sit on a server or in a drawer and not to be looked at again for twelve months).
Some conversations are best when they’re driven by pressure. But even those of us who thrive under stress would have to admit that it’s best delivered in small servings. How will your employees feel if the important meetings that drive their career aspirations are fraught with anxiety?
Frequent, holistic and effective conversations
Regular 1:1 conversations, held weekly, bi-weekly or monthly, take that anxiety away. A simple set of talking points and some honest feedback are all it takes. Like any relationship, it takes work, but the work doesn’t need to be onerous. This might serve the same function as a performance review, but cumulatively, holistically and effectively.
A one-to-one conversation is about getting to know each other. What are your aspirations? What interests and motivates you? The business has its priorities, you (both employee and manager) have yours, so how can we finesse all of that to deliver value for everyone? This is the melting pot of performance: finding an effective way to set objectives which play to someone’s strengths and interests, and offering flexibility in how objectives are delivered so that someone can satisfy their passions outside of the workplace. This is the work/life Blend, and everyone’s is different. Some may have strong ambitions to progress their career. Some may be thinking about their health and fitness, their personal development or a focus on wellbeing. Regular 1 to 1 meetings are your chance to discuss this, set clear action items, share honest feedback and, as a result, strengthen that all-important manager-employee relationship.
Great managers have regular conversations because they understand that sustained performance can’t be forced: it needs to be nurtured.
People may respond to pressure and micromanagement in the short term, but for sustained high performance, they need support and enablement. As the Silicon Valley CEO and VC Ben Horowitz puts it, “a manager’s skills and knowledge are only valuable if she uses them to get more leverage from her people.” In other words: the manager’s there to help her people succeed, and one-to-one conversations can be their most effective mechanism to boost performance.
Clarity is everything
We say “clarity”, but we could equally say “honesty”. Coming to a 1-1 with the right attitude means openness. Employees should set the agenda for these meetings (and so take responsibility for their own performance) and be ready to talk about what they’re doing, what they need and how their manager can support them. But the manager, equally, needs to be ready to engage, follow up and focus on specifics.
Kim Scott, author of “Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity”, doubles down on this. We should be able to tell our manager what we want to be working on but aren’t. We should be able to discuss what we are working on but don’t want to. These are perfectly valid things to feel, as long as we can support them with clear arguments based around our skills, our aspirations and our motivations. For a manager, it shouldn’t be an ordeal to hear how our employees feel. We may not be able to give them the exact result they’re looking for on this occasion, but we know more about what motivates them and excites them. Next time an opportunity comes up, we’ll remember this conversation and so will they. There’s no arcane secret to employee engagement. If you listen to what your people tell you and show them you’ve listened, their engagement will improve: that’s a great place to start from.
Frequency and familiarity breed collaboration
And here’s the best part: the more you do this, the easier it will become. Because yes, these meetings do need to deal with the day-to-day tasks, but when you’re working on an open and honest footing, that stuff can be included as part of a broader agenda. What’s happening? How’s X project? Do you need a little more support or resources? Are we on time and budget? If you’re clear on what’s expected of you, that smooths the everyday tasks and gives you the chance to talk about more complex or more personal items. Perhaps there’s a need to focus on wellbeing or motivation. Perhaps the employee could use a more flexible working arrangement to help them address some priorities outside the workplace. These aren’t fripperies or “bonuses” for getting the job done.
Performance is a holistic process
We don’t work in a bubble, checking our other life at the door or when we open our laptop. Looking at the whole person; giving them the environment in which they can thrive: this is the sort of thinking which tells an employee that they are important to the business. Their health, their state of mind, is an asset. They matter.
Finally, and crucially, having these conversations frequently and regularly gives you the chance to pivot. This comes back to something we said right at the start of this piece. Remember that annual appraisal and the annual list of objectives? Does business really work like that? Can you guarantee that your company’s priorities will remain unchanged for the year? Or will the market, or technology, or something else, cause us to rethink our goals? Regular conversations mean regularly revisiting what we’ve agreed. Is it still fit for purpose? Do we need to change an emphasis, a timing? Do we need to rethink the whole thing? The beauty of a great conversation - forming part of a pattern of regular, candid discussion between two people who trust and respect each other - is that these unexpected changes can be dealt with in exactly the same way as the day-to-day: with openness, with good sense and without drama. This is the sort of conversation we’d love to have with everyone we know in our lives: partners, parents, friends. If we can do it at work, as a matter of course, everyone wins… and keeps winning.
To learn more about how the OpenBlend performance management platform helps managers have great conversations contact our team to book a demo or download our guide to understand more about people-centric performance management.