When things get tough
Wright, N. & Marshall, R. (2006) ‘When Things get Tough: Handling Difficult Performance Conversations’, Training & Learning, Institute of Training & Occupational Learning, Issue 2, Volume 11, November, p25f.
In their final case study-based article on performance management and development, Richard Marshall and Nick Wright introduce practical ways for managers to address difficult performance review conversations.
‘I’m not quite sure how to put this. In fact, I’m not sure I want to have the conversation at all...’ So begins the thought processes of the manager who has a tricky performance issue to deal with. The sense of dread that can accompany the thought of a performance review can deeply trouble the manager who has to raise performance issues but isn’t sure how to. Why are these difficult conversations so difficult and why is it so damaging to avoid these conversations altogether? In this last article on performance management and development, we highlight some of the issues around difficult performance conversations and give some tips to managers on how to prepare. Bottom line is, the manager needs to bite the bullet.
In the first five articles, we shared our experiences of designing and implementing a new approach to performance management and development at World Vision UK, a Christian international development and relief agency. On the whole, the system has worked well but what happens when things don’t run so smoothly? What happens when staff are not performing well, the manager is ineffective or there is profound disagreement between manager and staff? What happens when things get heated or dysfunctional and the relationship risks breakdown?
These are the questions that paved the way for recent coaching for performance workshops in our own organisation. Previous training had helped managers and staff understand the performance management and development process and the spirit of coaching that underpins it. Later workshops focused on performance review and helped managers and staff prepare for it. Feedback emerged over time that managers would value more guidance on how best to handle difficult performance conversations. Things were working well with the majority of staff, e.g. those who were performing well or wanted to develop or even acknowledged they needed to develop. It was the more tricky situations that kept managers awake at night.
Anxiety can have all kinds of negative impacts on managers, e.g. driving them to exaggerate feedback in performance reviews by overemphasising positives to avoid conflict or overemphasising negatives to make sure they get their point across. In order to minimise this risk, we train managers to plan and rehearse in advance of a review what key over-riding message they want to communicate so that it doesn’t get lost in detail, e.g. ‘I really value your hard work and commitment and I need you to stick to agreed deadlines’. We also encourage managers and staff to face performance issues early to avoid escalation.
As a Christian organisation, our values can act as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, some inexperienced managers may feel reticent about tackling performance deficiencies in case it hurts or demoralises the person concerned. On the other hand, we have a key organisational principle of ‘saying what we mean and meaning what we say’, drawing on the biblical notion of ‘speaking the truth in love’. We believe love should determine the spirit and intention of management interventions but should not be confused with superficial niceness. It is concerned with acting in the other person’s best interest and that means addressing performance issues with appropriate sensitivity, not avoiding them.
Practically-speaking, we have found that if performance expectations (e.g. goals, indicators and behaviours) are agreed explicitly from the outset by all parties concerned, it is easier to identify and address them when, for whatever reason, things go awry. Various models have helped and we have trained managers to use them with a coaching style, e.g. Egan (author of The Skilled Helper) who identified three distinct phases to the problem-solving process:
*Exploration (descriptive phase) – what has happened?
*Understanding (reflective phase) – what does it mean/what might explain it?
*Action (planning phase) – what shall we do?
A fourth phase could be added – evaluation – to describe when and how progress is reviewed to see whether agreed actions have achieved the desired results. The central principle throughout is, through open dialogue, to work towards a shared understanding of what is affecting performance (whether personal or systemic) and to find the best solution together. Egan’s process, which parallels Kolb’s learning circle (experience – reflection – conceptualisation – planning), provides a disciplined structure that helps avoid jumping to premature conclusions or inappropriate action.
We have also used another simple model that plots motivation against ability and describes, in stereotypical form, characteristics of different types of performer. Identifying which category best describes a member of staff currently can provide a valuable key to which type of management approach is needed:
*Apprentice (high motivation, low ability) – usually a new starter or person employed in a new role. They want to do well but they don’t yet have the ability and so coaching is often around learning new knowledge or skills or gaining personal awareness through feedback. All being well, apprentices will grow into star performers.
*Star performer (high motivation, high ability) – a person who excels in his or her role, achieving great results and demonstrating masterful behavioural capabilities. The most difficult conversation with star performers tends to be how to keep them motivated to avoid becoming problem children or leaving.
*Problem child (low motivation, high ability) – a person who may have become disillusioned or cynical over time, perhaps as a result of being overlooked or sidelined. Although problem children may be capable of performing as star players, they have lost the motivation and may have developed unhelpful behaviours. The manager needs to take time to understand what’s going on in an effort to re-engage them.
*Misfit (low motivation, low ability) – a person who may have been in the organisation for a while but things have moved on and they haven’t. The misfit doesn’t have the will or the ability to perform well and can have a negative impact on those around them. The skilful manager needs to confront the issue and help the misfit return to apprentice mode – or leave to find something that fits them better.
People have different mental maps which helps explain how managers and staff can have very different perspectives on the same situation. When facts or perspectives are in dispute, focusing on real examples of behaviour or data can play an important part in increasing objectivity. Managers and staff may have a certain intention when communicating in a particular way or behaving in a particular fashion to achieve a particular result but the felt impact of what they said or did can be very different. Room for misinterpretation is amplified in cross-cultural conditions and so time spent in exploring underlying intentions can provide a valuable way forward.
In summary, we recommend that managers approach difficult performance conversations with a positive ethical intention, clear message, openness to hear the other person and practical commitment to move things forward.