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Conversations To Improve Performance
By Mark Raymond

Ben was waiting in his office for some work that he had asked one of his team to complete. He was starting to get annoyed because he said it was urgent and he still hadn’t received it. He knew that he had to review the work and ensure the client had it close of business; he began to wonder how he would do that and also make it to dinner with his wife. He finally received the work and there were problems – while most of the detail was done correctly, there were some important parts that had to be redone. He was really annoyed and frustrated but didn’t say anything to his team member. He ended up staying back to finish it and called his wife to say he wouldn’t make dinner. She was used to it. She’d be ordering in Thai takeaway that night and eating alone again. Ben was used to it too, and tired of his team not performing.

While this story is fictional, the scenario is not unusual. It is a variation on a theme of poor communication that is common in organisations, with costly consequences.

Managers and their teams want to perform well, and are capable of developing the skills to do so. One of the most common reasons for below standard performance is the lack of clarity from managers. Sometimes it is because managers don’t like giving feedback. This comes at a cost – to people’s development, performance and reputation and wellbeing of managers. It doesn’t have to be this way.

This article explores some of what we consider to be important conversational actions for managers in having their teams perform well and in giving feedback.

Being clear about what you want

Performance issues often occur in situations when we ask people to do something for us. In workshops that we run, managers tell us that they ask people to do things for them somewhere between 10 and 30 times a day, and that about 1/3 of the time they don’t get what they asked for. Most of the time this is because managers aren’t sufficiently clear. It’s not always easy, with expectations to do more in less time, but that’s about 1,500 requests a year that are not being delivered on, resulting in wasted time, re-work, and damaged relationships, as well as compromised efficiency and productivity. This is amounts to coordination waste, which is a huge hidden cost in the functioning of organisations. A key skill for managers is to negotiate mutually understood commitments with staff, and provide constructive and timely assessments on completion of commitments.

Providing timely assessments

Many years ago I was co-presenting to a client with my manager. We had a personable and honest relationship. The next day, my manager phoned me and said that he’d like to have a conversation with me about my presentation. When we met later that day, he said that he wanted to talk with me because he felt that my presentation wasn’t up to the standard he expected for someone at my level. He elaborated by saying that he expected me to be clear and concise about how our offering would help the client’s business, and he considered that I had not done that. He said “You spent most of the time talking about the product and very little time talking about the impact on their business, did you notice that?” I initially became defensive, and he listened to what I had to say but stood firm, pointing to some further evidence. He went on to say that this was important because he saw his role as helping his people be the best, and that he thinks it’s critical that the company gets better at understanding it’s customers’ businesses. At first, I was annoyed with him and disappointed with myself. After a few days, I was ready to take on the feedback and focus hard on improving in areas he suggested, and I gradually improved.

In the example above, it would have been easy for my manager not to say anything as I know he didn’t enjoy having the conversation, but he had the courage to provide the feedback, he wanted to see me develop and he had high standards for his team that we wasn’t prepared to compromise.

What about behaviours?

Most managers say that they are more comfortable providing feedback about tasks than behaviour. Tasks tend to be more black and white and therefore easier to provide feedback about. Behaviour is often more subtle, more personal and open to interpretation and disagreement. It can be useful to describe behaviour in a matter of fact, concrete and non-judgmental way, as illustrated in the story above when my manager indicated some specifics of what I did and did not say. Another example could be instead of asking someone to be more positive, you could say something like, “I noticed in the last few meetings that you’ve been looking down and have seemed a little distracted, is everything OK?” That way the other person knows what you mean - they know you noticed the behavior and know you are there to support them. If that behavior continued, you could then make a request to your team member to participate more and be more engaged in meetings, much in the same way we would if we were asking for other things to be done.

Good to great

It can also be important to notice and appreciate what people are doing well. So often we look for problems, and spend much of our time thinking about how to fix them. Most of us waste a lot of energy and effort focusing on this for little return. Research and experience tells us time and time again that focusing and giving feedback on strengths is one of the most effective things a manager can do to increase motivation, and performance.

This article highlights a huge area of hidden waste and missed opportunities in the functioning of organisations, reflecting the ineffective use of language and conversations, the most important tool in a manager’s repertoire.

What can you do?

You might like to conduct some experiments about how you can help improve the performance of people in your team and reduce coordination waste.

  1. Think about someone who you lead and think is operating at a high level. Identify what they do that you believe results in them performing well. Find an opportunity to genuinely share what you appreciate about them and, if appropriate, explore ways of further leveraging their skills for their own development, to develop others or to provide more value to customers.
  2. Relationships with key staff members. Write down the names of people who report to you. Rate the strength of your relationship from their perspective from 1 – 5 (5 being high and 1 being low). Select one of your direct reports who you want to build a better relationship with and identify what you specifically will do in your conversations with them to improve the relationship.
  3. Are you making clear requests or setting clear expectations? Think about a person who works for you who you think could improve how they do things for you. Make some observations about how clear you think you have been with them when asking them to do things, including specifying time frames, providing context, being specific and clear about what you expect, providing scope for them to negotiate, and the standard you expect. Also think about your mindset and mood as you have made requests and how effective you have been in providing feedback, and the impact this has had.

One final thought is that although we have explored being clear in what you want and in providing feedback, this isn’t the only strategy to help improve performance. Saying nothing or offering words of encouragement can also be effective. Part of the artistry of communication is the timeliness of what you want to convey and what you say and do not say.

© Newfield Institute

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