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    How to hold effective performance discussions that produce better results

    June 21, 2016 by Alison Hill

    When we last looked at performance reviews, we saw that more regular and less structured feedback and conversations are rapidly replacing the annual review. At a recent open day at the Australian Institute of Management (AIM) I listened to Kerrie Yates, Consultant at Catalyst Learning and Development, explain exactly how to go about holding an effective, productive performance conversation. This is what I learned.

    Many managers find conversations about performance the most difficult part of their job. Participants in the AIM session ‘Effective performance discussions’ expressed the opinion that they were not insufficiently coached and trained, particularly when it came to discussions about behavioural issues, rather than measurable KPIs. They agreed that more of their time was spent on poor performers than good performers, as poor performers required more managing, attention and training  – at the expense of good performers, who were often penalised by being piled with more work. Many expressed the fear that star performers would leave the team or the organisation because they did not feel positively acknowledged for their high performance.

    BLOCKS TO EFFECTIVE PERFORMANCE CONVERSATIONS

    Yates identified these blocks to effective performance conversations, as felt by managers:

    • Uncertainty about their capability to handle the conversation
    • Lack of time to hold regular conversations with all team members
    • Lack of perceived benefit – a perception there are no measurable outcomes
    • Not wanting to hurt another’s feelings
    • Seeing the conversation as too difficult, and so moving it elsewhere (usually to HR)
    • Having to deal with an organisational culture of non-recognition (Hint: pay everybody enough to take the issue of remuneration off the table.)

    The session then focused on how to have a performance conversation and how to deliver feedback, beginning with thorough preparation.

    BEFORE THE CONVERSATION

    Give the team member notice, and set expectations for the conversation. Nobody will respond well if they feel ambushed. Say something like, ‘I’ve noticed that your last two reports have been late and I’d like to talk to you about that. How about straight after lunch?’ The person is clear what the conversation will be about and can think about their response.

    Be fully prepared and know and discuss the facts. Consider the solutions rather than only focusing on the problem. Describe the impact of the problem at the individual, team and organisational levels. For the late report, for example, you may say, ‘Because the report was a day late, I was unable to review the figures and there was an error in the budgeting. When I presented it to management, they picked up the error and it seemed like our team hadn’t done the research properly. I’m concerned that we might not get the budget to get the project done.’

    Consider how the person might respond, and be prepared for their response. Think about how you feel about having the conversation: What language will you use? Do you have some responses ready? Of course, you can’t control every situation, such as when issues outside the workplace are affecting a team member’s performance and they respond by bursting into tears, for example.

    HOW TO DELIVER FEEDBACK: A QUICK GUIDE

    Positive feedback is aimed at acknowledging good performance and promoting more of it. However, saying something like, ‘Well done on the report’ is not enabling the person to understand what was done well, and to do more of it. Yates offered the following, stressing that it is a guide and not a script:

    1. Give a concrete example of good performance. ‘Your report was well-structured and clear; good job’.
    2. Say what the impact was. ‘That meant I was able to give a really succinct presentation to the board.’
    3. Say what the benefit was. ‘I was able to get across the team’s funding needs and I think we will get what we need to run the project, so well done.’

    Feedback for improvement is more challenging, but the following framework makes it less stressful. At all stages, ask open questions (i.e. ones that cannot be answered yes, or no, or with any other one-word answer).

    1. Identify the problem. ‘Your report was late, and this has happened three times now.’
    2. Say what the impact was – including the impact on others such as the team or customers. ‘I had to go to the management meeting without being able to read through it and so I was unprepared for questions from the CEO and CFO.’
    3. Listen to their reaction and explanation. Really listen, without preconceptions or judgment.
    4. Look for solutions. This depends on their reaction. It might be that the deadline was unreasonable and they need more time in future, or that they need an editor or proofreader at the final stages of report writing in future.
    5. Say what the impact of this will be. ‘If I give you a day longer to get them done, we can get all reports finished in time I can be properly prepared for management meetings’.
    6. Say what the benefit of this will be. ‘I’ll be much more likely to get out budget requests approved and we can then go ahead with the revenue-generating project we want to work on.’

    Performance measurement and holding performance discussions is complex, and people are messy (and I’m not referring to the state of your desk). As Yates stressed, there is no ‘magic formula’ for performance reviews that will work in every case. Take the situation where a talented person is in the wrong job because the company was desperate to fill the position when they hired; or where a high performer’s performance drops, but they still outperform the average employee. These situations can give rise to complex conversations. Hopefully you will find some pointers to holding effective performance discussions. AIM has many events and resources Australia-wide for mangers, leaders and aspiring leaders: see www.aim.com.au/events.

     Take me back to ENews

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