Performance ManagementBy Heather Campbell >>

Mercer’s 2013 Global Performance Management Survey reports that only 7% of managers were felt to be “highly skilled at having candid dialogue with their direct reports about performance”.

The same survey found that approximately one in three organisations worldwide said that “improving managers’ ability to have candid dialogue with employees has the greatest impact on overall company performance”.

So, one-third of companies recognise the crucial role of “candid dialogue” in improving organisational performance, while less than one in ten managers are viewed as being competent at having those candid conversations about performance.

The first thing that strikes me is that two-thirds of companies are deluding themselves. The second thing is that the low level of ability managers have at engaging candidly with those they lead is truly shocking.

But this isn’t a new problem and fixing it requires more than HR functions pushing managers to do performance reviews, which are often seen as the vehicle for these candid conversations. Nor is it about simply putting managers through another two-day workshop on having good performance conversations. If the last one didn’t work, chances are this one won’t either.

Instead, there are five critical areas that businesses must focus on if they are to enable their leaders to have meaningful performance conversations – interactions that include the aforementioned “candid dialogue”.

1. HR functions must stop adding more layers of bureaucracy. Additional paperwork or more data to record on IT systems are a huge barrier for managers. They are too busy already and haven’t the time or headspace to handle further complexity. The best performance reviews start with one blank sheet of paper and two open minds, ready and willing to have an open and honest conversation.

2. Performance review processes must not state that leaders should review performance quarterly, six-monthly or annually – the acceptable frequency varies from business to business. The problem with stating frequency is that although HR functions set this as a minimum, managers see it as a target that they may or may not hit. Instead, the message that needs to be shared is that reviewing performance is a daily part of a manager’s job. The focus should be on encouraging managers to value everyday conversations about performance as highly as they value everyday conversations about tasks.

3. Development programmes must allow sufficient time, feedback and coaching to enable managers to make a substantial shift in their ability to conduct the performance conversation, and especially to have that candid dialogue. A ‘sheep-dip’ one- or two-day refresher will not embed the required level of change. Programmes that are too short can do more damage than good. They embed limited knowledge, at best – at worst they simply reinforce what managers already know, which in turn tends to lead them to conclude that having knowledge somehow means they are also applying it! The shift that 93% of managers need to make to become highly skilled at the candid conversations required in performance reviews takes time and commitment. Development interventions need to run over a number of months and include a lot of meaningful practice as well as feedback, coaching and support.

4. The content of effective development programmes must include a high level of focus on building self-awareness as well as skill. Candid conversations challenge us at a deep level – we fear the emotions they can stir up (our own and those of others). We fear that we might not be seen as a ‘nice person’ as a result of being candid. For most, we see that being candid runs counter to a lifetime of learning how to be diplomatic and say ‘the right thing’. Leaders need to develop self-awareness around their own emotional responses, and how to manage these, if they are to apply the skills of candid conversations effectively.

5. The organisational environment is likely to need an overhaul as much as the leaders’ self-awareness and skill. Far too many businesses espouse the desire to have good performance management, and yet fill their leaders’ time with tasks, upwards reporting and endless meetings that achieve little. Performance management must be valued enough to allow leaders the time to do it. It’s surprising how many organisations say they want their leaders to carry out regular performance reviews, and yet these are the first meetings that get displaced because other ‘more important’ things come up.

If companies focus on these five pointers, they will realise great rewards in terms of employee engagement, performance and productivity. And that will impact the bottom line results. But these are not ‘quick-fixes’  – they take time and commitment.

Let us know what you think. What other reasons are there that so many managers handle performance management conversations ineffectively? And what else can be done to enable managers to handle them better? Leave us a comment below or tweet us @CommsMasters.

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