Performance conversations - Why do managers find them so hard?


Stuart Hearn

CEO & Founder

Insight author headshot

Every week, my team and I speak to dozens of HR people and we hear the same problem over and over again - “How can I get my managers to have better quality, more regular performance discussions with their team members?”.

It’s a widespread issue but one that pays huge dividends for those who can crack it. A major global study by McKinsey this year found that companies who have embedded a culture of regular, high quality performance and development discussions are twice as likely to outperform their competitors.

So what’s the solution? To understand this, we first need to explore what gets in the way of managers having regular performance conversations.

Blocker #1 - Fear

Many managers are “accidental managers” - individual contributors who are great at what they do so they are promoted to be a manager, but with no experience of managing people. And many of these managers receive no training or guidance on how to do it.

Most of the managers we speak to genuinely want to be good managers. But having conversations about performance is daunting, especially when you don’t know how. So many of them end up avoiding these discussions for fear of getting them wrong and upsetting the applecart with their team members.

Blocker #2 - Outdated techniques

Of course not all managers lack the knowledge of how to have performance conversations. But many have been taught traditional management techniques which involve honing in weaknesses or things that have gone wrong.

In recent years though, neuroscience has shown us that these techniques can be demotivating and can negatively impact performance. So it’s no wonder that managers who have tried these methods and found them unhelpful resort to avoiding performance conversations altogether.

Blocker #3 - Time

Managers are busier than ever. Many administrative responsibilities that were previously owned by finance and HR have been devolved to line managers. Reporting structures have also become flatter over the last 20 years with people leaders having more direct reports than before.

With time being so precious, managers need to feel that they are getting a good return on investment for any time spent discussing performance. Yet, according to a Mercer study, 95% of managers are dissatisfied with annual appraisals - the one performance discussion that most organisations mandate.

Blocker #4 - Administrative burden

There are many reasons why annual appraisals aren’t effective, but two of the most common reasons are too much emphasis on form filling and clunky, time-consuming IT systems. Both of these frequently get in the way of managers having meaningful conversations.

This problem is often exacerbated by managers being held accountable for the wrong things. Earlier this year I spoke at the CIPD Line Manager’s conference and I polled the room on what they measured their managers against in terms of performance management - almost everyone measured the completion rate of appraisal forms and hardly anyone measured the frequency and quality of performance conversations. People will naturally prioritise what they are held accountable for, so it’s easy to see how having meaningful conversations can end up playing second fiddle to box-ticking.

3 things you can do to get managers talking again

Overcoming these problems can feel daunting but effecting change is possible. Here are some practical steps you can take which we’ve seen work with the 100+ organisations who we support:

  1. Replace the single annual appraisal meeting with quarterly check-ins. Annual appraisals are time consuming and the average managers spends 2-3 hours per person on them for very little value. So ask your managers to have four 30 minute check-in conversations a year instead. Having much shorter conversations a bit more often will feel less burdensome and more achievable.
  2. Train your managers to focus on progress, development and strengths. Research has very clearly shown that conversations which concentrate on these aspects rather than problems and weaknesses are much more likely to improve performance. So managers will see a greater return for their efforts making them more likely to continue investing their time.
  3. Take away the form filling. Nobody can have a genuine conversation when they are being asked to type out answers to a set of questions. So instead, provide a set of suggested discussion prompts and coaching questions to provide structure to the conversation, along with an area to capture quick notes and action points. That’s what we do in our Clear Review software and it works brilliantly.

When we first introduce this approach to companies, questions often arise over how to handle ratings, reward and promotion decisions without appraisals. There is an answer to this and I’ll be explaining it in my follow up article next month.

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