I can count on one hand the "performance conversations" I’ve had in my contractor career. And even then, I’m not sure they were very performance-focused. They were mostly short, awkward meetings, with no structure and little obvious point.
Yet performance conversations – whether one-off feedback sessions or regular reviews – can be incredibly powerful, leaving both manager and team member feeling positive and energized.
How Do You Discuss Performance?
Anna Wildman (pictured above) is an expert in performance conversations at work, but knows how uncomfortable they can be.
In her book, "Now You’re Talking! The Manager’s Complete Handbook to Leading Great Conversations at Work – Even the Tough Ones," she offers a clear framework for holding a range of targeted conversations, with tips and insight to make them a success.
I spoke to Wildman for my Mind Tools Expert Interview podcast, and she told me about the three main dynamics of a performance conversation: the process, the message and the words.
Here's a clip from that interview, in which she explains those dynamics, and dispels the myth of the perfect performance management system. Instead, she asserts the opportunity (and responsibility) faced by individual managers.
Wildman declares this opportunity "good news" for managers everywhere!
Demoralizing and Undermining Performance "Conversations"
I’m reminded of a performance conversation a friend of mine had in an annual review.
I say "conversation," but I don’t think there was much interaction going on. She received a checklist of her activities and attitudes, graded by her boss. Inexplicably, she’d scored very low in some areas.
She asked why, and was told that, if she wasn’t happy with the scores, she could appeal them by contacting HR.
So this unique relationship between my friend and her boss, which was crucial to the smooth-running of a large and busy communications team, would end up in the hands of someone who knew neither of these people well.
Always a conscientious high-achiever, my friend felt bewildered and resentful, and before too long, she found another job. If her boss had led her annual review differently, she might still be there, contributing to her team’s success.
Partnership Not Confrontation
As Wildman says, how the manager handles a performance conversation is "by far and away the most important part." And this has led her to develop her CEDAR Model of Collaborative Feedback, providing an all-important "pathway through: where do I start, where do I need to go next, and so on."
Here, CEDAR is an acronym.
C stands for Context, which frames the topics being discussed, providing a helpful perspective. E is for Examples, because "without examples and illustrations, it’s hard for people to know exactly what you mean." This would have helped my friend understand her low scores.
The third step is Diagnosis, which Wildman believes is "the single most important step of all. It’s definitely one where the manager stops talking." The focus shifts to the individual, who the manager invites to analyze the situation.
Next comes A for Action. What needs to be done to correct the problem or do things better next time? Then finally, R for Review, where you agree how and when you are going to follow up.
Download our free infographic about Anna Wildman's CEDARTM Model.
It’s clear that this five-step process could help identify and resolve a range of workplace issues. But it’s also great for positive conversations. Some managers might think a hearty "Great job!" does the trick, but with Wildman’s CEDAR model the benefits of a job well done can be manifold.
Diagnosing the Roots of Bad (and Good) Performance
The magic happens in the second half of the CEDAR conversation, from D for Diagnosis. The manager helps the individual reflect on their success, by asking questions like: How did you do it? What capabilities did you use? Who did you talk to? What strengths do you have?
That will "get them thinking about the behaviors that they use, the competencies they use, and what they do that helps that to be a successful area for them," Wildman says.
From there, it’s a small step to thinking about how to harness those positives to go even further, in the Action step of CEDAR. For example, the individual could coach other team members in their strong skills. The final Review step will put a date in the diary to talk about how this has gone.
Wildman shares an apt saying that captures the power of this approach: "Once you’ve nailed it then scale it. Scaling it means helping people to understand both the meaning and the significance of what they do well... the impact it’s having on both the unit and the organization as a whole."
What’s more, "it can also be a really great way of helping people to see where to start directing their career, if they understand which capabilities are their real strengths," Wildman says.
That’s so much more valuable than a scorecard – or even a pat on the back.
Listen to More of Anna Wildman
Mind Tools Club members and Mind Tools for Business licensees can listen to the full 30-minute interview with Anna Wildman, with transcript.
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Your Performance Conversations
What was your most memorable performance conversation at work and why? Share your experiences in the comments below!