Performance conversations : Quality not quantity

Employees can dread having performance conversations.  My research shows that performance conversations can drive down an individual’s performance.  So encouraging managers to have more performance conversations with employees to drive motivation may have the opposite effect.  I analysed thousands of performance conversations and found that the key driver to improving  business performance was the quality of conversation.

But what is a quality conversation?  I was lucky enough to be able to segment the conversations into those focussed on the employee’s business objectives (i.e. how the employee performed against their individual objectives that link to the corporate goals via the balanced scorecard) and development goals (i.e. those focussed on how the employee wanted to develop in the coming year).

There was a key difference between these two conversations.  The conversation around the employee’s business objectives was backward looking – the traditional feedback conversation.  The conversation about the employee’s development was future-focussed – a ‘feedforward’ conversation.   My analysis showed that these feedforward conversations had a higher correlation with an employee’s performance than the feedback conversation.

Future-focussed conversations with employees is one technique used in strengths based performance management.  But very little research has been conducted on these types of interventions.  This prompted the CIPD to conduct some research in partnership with the UK Civil Service.  The research showed that after the strengths based interventions, employees are more likely to agree to the statement ‘I receive regular feedback on my performance’.  And these feedback discussions are predominately development focussed!  Critically the research shows that employees whose managers undertook the strengths based interventions are more likely to report that they find their conversations with their managers useful, and find the conversations help improve their performance.

So maybe the next conversation we have should be strengths based and future-focussed.  We could ask ‘Tell me about the last great piece of work you did?’ and ‘Tell me which of your strengths helped achieve that?’.  The conversation could blossom into what conditions would allow those strengths to be replicated.

So should we start focussing on the quality of conversation rather than the quantity?