The key characteristics for effective performance conversations

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Don’t ask managers to squash discussion of potential and career development into the last few minutes of a performance review

HR professionals are advocating more effective ‘conversations’ at work, especially between the individual employee and their line manager. It’s hard to disagree with this aspiration but progress feels slow. So what are such conversations there for and how can HR best encourage them?

Effective performance, development and career conversations can improve individual and organisational performance by activating four main levers:

1. Helping each employee know what is expected of them and aligning their work priorities with business needs.

2. Providing constructive feedback, giving recognition, and using coaching approaches to agree areas for improvement and initiate change.

3. Agreeing skill and/or career development actions and giving the employee access to the people and resources they need for advice, learning and work opportunities.

4. Motivating the individual through personal attention and addressing opportunities and problems thoroughly and honestly.

At the Institute for Employment Studies we have developed a model of key characteristics for effective performance, development and career conversations. They need to be timely, address a shared and relevant agenda, generate insights, and lead to agreed actions.

So what helps or hinders such conversations? Here are a few suggestions based on recent research and practical experience:

  • HR is right to encourage reasonably frequent one-to-one conversations between individuals and their managers. One-to-ones should not be too formal; but dedicated attention and air time matters. Phone or video can work fine. HR must remind senior leaders to role model using one-to-ones themselves if this is a serious expectation for everyone.
  • Effective conversations need a flexible and mutually-agreed agenda. If performance goals have been discussed in depth last month perhaps the next meeting should focus more on feedback or development. Managers and employees appreciate simple prompts to help them navigate a range of topic areas. Employees must have the opportunity and time to raise issues that are worrying them; such as confusing work processes, difficult relationships, stress or ill health. HR needs to emphasise this problem-solving component much more.
  • The biggest challenge for HR is going cold turkey on its addiction to over-recording such discussions. We should only ever ask people to record information that will be used – mostly agreed actions. Clearer management of poor performers can reduce excessive reporting for the majority of employees. Stop pretending that a high number of forms filled in means that good conversations are taking place.
  • Effective leaders often use team meetings to set and share priorities and to reflect on performance, team effectiveness and capability. HR could do much more to show how team discussions save time and complement one-to-ones.
  • Effective career conversations are distinctly personal and need to take place when most relevant for the employee. They are about what the individual is interested in, what they are good at and where they see their working life going. So don’t ask managers to squash discussion of potential and career development into the last few minutes of a formal performance review.
  • The line manager is not the only, or necessarily the best, person to give an employee performance feedback or skill and career development support. Research shows the benefits of support from a wider range of people, whether or not formal reviews (with or without ratings) are used.

And finally, let’s stop calling these conversations ‘difficult’. Why on earth would that encourage anyone to try more frequent, open and human conversations about work?

Wendy Hirsh is a principal associate at the Institute for Employment Studies, and ranks 10th on HR magazine’s HR Most Influential Thinkers 2018 list

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