Chapter 1 - The Why
At this point in time, we probably don’t need another history lesson on the evolution of performance management: the bad old days of rank and yank; the cumbersome annual barn dance of 360 feedback; nine-box grids; the gradual embrace by the business world of performance development and the 1-2-1 conversation. It’s enough to remember that a process which had originally been envisaged as boosting performance and developing capabilities and productivity came to be used as a points system of interest only to the HR department. Should we pay this person more or fire them?
Over the past few years - and particularly since the COVID pandemic had such a drastic impact on our working lives - the benefits of having people-centric conversations have become increasingly clear. We need to talk to each other more often and more effectively. We need to ensure that employees’ objectives are clear, appropriately challenging and aligned with business goals. We need to understand what motivates our people - their aspirations and passions and we want to improve their wellbeing.
How COVID has changed the way we work
The pandemic has shown us the importance of thinking a little more holistically about the mosaic of work objectives, personal drivers and wellbeing that make up our working lives. If we can help employees to understand and navigate that melange of influences, we can have a real impact on productivity, performance, wellbeing, engagement and retention. There’s no wizardry here - well, perhaps a little alchemy - but simply the effort and imagination to think of our people as, well, people. What motivates them? What would help them do their job more effectively? What are they interested in?
Hybrid working is here to stay. For many of us, our working lives will continue to be divided between the home and the office. This shift has caused many of us to question our work-life balance, and it’s made it more difficult for managers to connect with their teams. Creating a regular cadence of conversations, allowing time to discuss motivation and wellbeing, include some feedback as well as objective-setting and performance, enables a culture of performance development. It levels the playing field, mitigating the effects of proximity bias which even the most empathetic managers can fall prey to when half their team are in the office full-time while the other half spend two days a week at home.
How business has evolved in the information economy
And then, of course, there’s the simple fact that work has changed. We do more: we work harder, for longer, with more complexity in our working lives. It’s simply not enough to set someone a few annual objectives and touch base with them once or twice a year. Business objectives evolve faster than this. We need to be able to respond to market shifts and adapt to our competitors. Set a big chunky objective, sure, but make sure you revisit it regularly and interrogate its value. Is it still fit for purpose? Do we need to shift the timing, the emphasis, the focus? Is the business still focussed on this issue in the way it was two months ago? If not, how can we adapt to cater for that?
The more tools we get - the more brilliant pieces of tech we harness to do our jobs in a more responsive and agile way - the more important it is that we remember the human side. There are no shortcuts to trust and collaboration. However shiny the tools are that we buy to communicate and share, they’re still reliant on the motivation, engagement and wellbeing of the people using them. An app like Slack (or Hubspot, or Salesforce, or whatever) may have transformed the way you communicate, measure or convert, but if you never take the time to tell your people that they’re doing a great job, those productivity gains will be blunted by their lassitude and disengagement. And let’s not forget that it’s a job-hunter’s market out there, and it’s not so very hard to find a new employer with exactly the same tools you’re using AND a manager who might, once in a while, remember to offer some positive feedback and encouragement.
As we said, there’s no wizardry here. This stuff is common sense, not a brave new world. Take a little time to get to know someone. Use what you know to enrich their working life. Tell them they’re doing a good job. Help them find ways to do their job better.
Good managers have been having these holistic conversations for decades. The only difference now is that there’s dedicated tech to help them.
Chapter 2 - The When, Where and How
The astute reader may be thinking that the onus is all on the manager to make this work. And certainly we could write a whole section about bad or uninterested managers (it amounts to the same thing): the subject experts who shouldn’t be managing people at all, but are placed in management positions because of their seniority or long tenure; the box-tickers who are happy to acknowledge the good stuff but can’t be bothered to deal with the challenging aspects.
But the truth is that ongoing performance management starts with the employee taking responsibility for their own performance. This is their chance to discuss the great stuff they’re doing and to flag potential roadblocks; to share what really drives them. This is their moment to tap into their manager’s knowledge, experience and (for want of a better word) connectivity. Who in the business could I collaborate with to get this project over the line? Who can spend half an hour to bring me up to speed on this issue?
This is why these meetings need to happen with a reasonable frequency. Are we aligned? Are we on track? What’s getting in the way? This increased frequency is one of the biggest mental obstacles for managers, because many of them envisage the marathon of minutiae that is the annual review… except now they have to do it monthly.
Prepare to win
Except, of course, that they don’t. These meetings - which some may do quarterly, many do some monthly and some as often as weekly - should be concise and to the point. All they need is a little preparation, some key talking points, and they’ll take no longer than half an hour.
And this is where that brilliant, dedicated technology comes in. A 2019 report on the state of UK performance management found that 58% of managers were using standard office software to conduct performance management: Word, Excel, Google Docs and so on. The more files you need to wrangle, the more time it will take you to be ready. Great tech - people-centric performance management tech - makes it simple for employees to manage the agenda. They can set the talking points, include the vital individual drivers that encompass motivation, wellbeing and passion points, and pull it all together to focus free up the meeting for an actual conversation.
Switch things up
But while you’re doing all this, remember that you’re not just casting aside the structure of those antiquated annual performance reviews… you also need to ditch some of the trappings. This is a conversation, so think about the environment. Is a meeting room really the best place to do this? Does the boardroom give you the right environment to open up? Try stepping out of the office. As a wise person once said, there’s no hierarchy at a coffee table. Change things up a little: you might be surprised at how a small trick like this can give you a new perspective and mindset.
It’s also crucial to remember the work/life blend. This is a conversation about performance, sure, but we’ve already established that performance needs to be about the whole individual.
We cannot treat our people like automata. We need to recognise that many factors contribute to high performance. Our personal lives have a bearing on our professional lives. Our aspirations, hobbies and interests influence the way we learn, develop and grow. The more we understand this, the better we can craft these conversations to tailor solutions for everyone’s benefit. This doesn’t mean that every deliverable needs to be a thrilling journey of discovery. Sometimes work is just work that needs to be done. But if we can find ways to satisfy those interests and drivers alongside the essential business of getting things done, we’ll engage and focus people to be their best selves more often, and that’s a rewarding and inspiring path to higher productivity and performance.
Chapter 3 - The Who
We’ve touched on this section throughout the previous chapters, but it really does deserve a section to itself. What can you expect to gain from this process? What are the positive changes both managers and employees can expect to see from meeting more regularly, talking more broadly and openly and and being more rigorous about goals, actions and aspirations?
The quickest route to becoming a brilliant manager
Just as we’ve all had a bad manager at some point in our career, we’ve probably all had a fantastic one. The kind of manager who has time to listen. The kind of manager that responds in the moment, guides you when you come unstuck, sends you in the right direction and shows their appreciation when you reach your destination.
These managers create candour and trust, not by asking for it but by proving they deserve it. This isn’t about liking or disliking people: it’s about knowing that if you come to them with something you need to discuss, they’ll take you seriously and take the time to help you figure it out. Part of that is availability. Part of it is removing the filters. Some managers may be available and willing to listen, but only actually hear what their people are saying through the prism of their own needs. And yes, availability can be tough. We’re all busy. That’s why these conversations need to be regular and honest. The manager needs to demonstrate that she’s committed to this process. If the 1-to-1 gets cancelled because something’s come up… well, something can always come up.
A great manager gives their people clarity. They make it clear what’s expected of them; they show the employee their place in the grand scheme of things and how they contribute to organisational success. Gallup described “setting clear expectations” as the most foundational element contributing towards employee engagement. Those expectations form the basis of a great coaching conversation. With the right tools, the right structure and support, the manager will find it far easier to coach and develop their people, creating those incremental gains that boost and sustain performance.
If the manager can do these things - if they can set these meetings, do the prep (it’s not hard, as we’ve shown above) and stick to them - they’ll send off a clear signal: the employee’s performance, welfare and engagement are important to them. Yes, this is partly selfish, and that’s ok. We’re all doing our jobs here. The better the employee does their job, the better the manager will look. But few people go into work wanting or intending to do a bad job. We’d all rather be challenged, achieve something and look good in the process. The difference is in whether you do a great job because of your manager or in spite of them.
Why employees need to take responsibility - in a good way
No one wants a job where things just happen to them. We all want to feel that we have a say in how we work, how we progress, grow and develop.
We’ve talked about these conversations in the context of the business - objectives, performance and productivity. But this is personal too. The aim is to bring an end to that feeling of dislocation which employees experience when they’re drifting, stuck in a rut or losing their enthusiasm. Coming into work every day and knowing exactly what’s expected of you and how you can achieve - this is the baseline of engagement. How can an employee be expected to care if they’re thrown tasks without context? We all want to feel part of something. We’re social animals - we want to contribute, to be involved.
Once again, this underlines the importance of frequency. Just as business objectives can shift, so can the drivers that underpin a person’s motivations. Our health issues change; our family situation can change; our circumstances - financial, personal, professional - can change. And while the manager isn’t necessarily there to be a confidant, if an employee helps the manager to understand where their priorities lie, that creates an opportunity for the manager. It could be about coaching and development. It could be about flexible working. The point is that they’re listening and responding.
But what underpins all of this is timely, focused feedback. We can’t improve without it. Whether it’s positive or constructive, it’s the backbone of development. These crucial meetings are a shortcut to coaching, because they offer the chance to discuss recent successes and to analyse and find solutions to roadblocks and problems. Why did that go so well? Did we do something differently? If so, how do we incorporate that into our routine? If we’re making the same mistake again and again, why? Is it a problem with the system? The person? Is there a training need?
Let’s make these things part of the day-to-day, not once a year. Hardly anyone improves in huge leaps and bounds… we improve incrementally, piece by piece, learning as we go. If the employee embraces this - if the manager is committed to it - then the business is investing in its people every bit as much as if they were spending thousands on training and consultancy.
What we’re trying to offer is a framework for professional and personal development. It’s not complicated, and at its heart it’s simply two people having a regular, focused conversation. The more honest we can be with each other, the more candour we can summon up and the more insights we can share, the better we’ll understand each other and the more successful we’ll become. It’s like any relationship: the more you put into it, the more you get out.
Obviously we can’t talk about all of this without leaving space for senior leadership. As we hope we’ve already demonstrated, there’s a lot here to benefit the business. Happier, more effective, more motivated people. A rigorous approach to goal-setting, ideally coupled with a clear connection from individual goals to business goals. Yes, we want people to get things done and to do them well, but we also want to foster the camaraderie and togetherness that comes from understanding everyone’s contribution.
But leadership also has a role to play, and it’s a vital one. Although we’ve talked about the fact that these meetings don’t need to be huge time-sinks, and that the right tech will ensure both that preparation is quick and the meetings will remain focused, they do need to happen. Leaders need to take performance management and development seriously - by doing it themselves, ideally, and by paying attention to the results and acting on them. Helping managers to manage - saying and showing them that it’s not just right to invest this time, it’s required - is an essential ingredient here. These meetings give leaders insightful data, week to week and month to month. These data can guide and inform your HR strategy, giving the business an holistic view of employee wellbeing, engagement and motivation to go alongside a clear, granular view of objective-setting and progress.
And the results should prove the value. Simple things like seeing how many objectives are being set and how many are being completed on time. Higher quality conversations with informed, engaged managers about remuneration, succession planning and promotion. Getting to know your teams better - their strengths, their development areas and what motivates them. These are “soft” qualities broken down into hard data. If people are truly your most valuable assets, as so many businesses say they are, this is your chance to really understand their value.
Chapter 4 - The What
We've established that regular one-to-one meetings provide the opportunity to discuss objectives, to agree clear action items, to share honest feedback and, as a result, strengthen that all-important manager-employee relationship. But nobody can talk about everything that impacts performance in a 30-60 minute conversation - particularly when we consider that the modern workforce needs, and expects, to have holistic conversations that go beyond objectives.
Employee owned agenda
Therefore you need to provide employees with a framework that enables them to distil the things that are most important to them into agenda points for each session. The ability to pick and mix from the breadth of factors that impact their individual performance enables them focus this valuable time to best meet their current needs. Agenda building tech that prepares and stores these talking points facilitates wider conversations that support the whole person.
Our own data, aggregated from our clients, shows that in any given conversation:
- 47% of the time is spent on agenda actions and objectives
- 27% on employee motivation
- 20% on wellbeing
- 6% on Feedback
Managers as coaches
While an agenda may prepare the manager with a clear view of what the employee wants to discuss, they must also leave the session with the maximum potential for success. A coaching approach is what elevates the one-to-one from a coffee room chat to an effective conversation. Yet not all managers have coaching experience or training. So tech that incorporates a coaching framework can guide managers through key stages in a one-to-one from taking accountability for actions, signing off tasks, reviewing wins, setting timescales for tasks, and scheduling the next session. The GROW model is simple and widely used in coaching conversations:
- Goal: Where do you want to be?
- Reality: Where are you right now?
- Options: What can we do?
- Way forward: What are we going to do?
In 2022 the modern manager doesn't have all the answers, they haven't done it all before - it is a fast-moving, post pandemic, hybrid workplace. But they can coach the employee to adapt to the new environment and changing demands to unlock their potential to maximise performance.
The one-to-one conversation is the single most important productivity tool a manager has.
Chapter 5 - The What’s Next
All of this involves a certain amount of cultural change, not least from the managers and employees. How often these meetings need to happen is up for debate, but monthly tends to be the baseline from which most businesses start.
It can be a challenge to get things going but, once it’s begun, you may be surprised how quickly it gathers traction. People nearly always appreciate the chance to get more time with their manager, and working from a clear set of talking points helps to keep things on track. It becomes a self-fulfilling cycle, with people keen to keep momentum and demonstrate progress.
So how to go about it? Let’s break down the how and why into a few easy points.
We need space to be ourselves in the workplace
A one-to-one conversation is about people as well as objectives. The more people-centric you can make these meetings - the more you can address personal motivations, wellbeing and engagement - the more you’ll address the needs of the whole person and create a stronger, more effective and more trusting relationship.
Managers need time to manage
Leaders should send a clear signal: managers need to take these meetings. If you want this to work, people need to talk to each other. It may be only 30 mins per employee, but if these are consistently skipped then it sends a message to both employees and other managers: leaders aren’t taking this seriously.
People tend to leave managers, not jobs
This is such a well-known piece of wisdom but it’s worth repeating. An employee’s relationship with their manager defines their relationship with their job. If that relationship can move to a closer, more open one, that’s going to do wonders for retention.
The war for talent is real
Arguably, this was true before the pandemic, but it’s even truer now. High-quality people have never been in such demand. A robust performance management process and tool will support your employer brand… think better comments on Glassdoor and Linkedin just for starters.
Purpose, not paychecks
Actually, of course we want paychecks… it’s still the number one reason people go to work. But we also want to work in a place where we feel part of something, where we’re aligned with what the business is doing. Clearer goal-setting, clearer communication and prompt feedback on results will all contribute to this.
People hate the alternative
Normally we wouldn’t try to draw a positive from a negative. But it’s true. If you’re still doing performance appraisal annually, you’ll know what a colossal drain on time and resources it can be. Breaking up those hours into small chunks spread over the year is surely preferable to forcing down one huge indigestible chunk before April.