February 3, 2022

How Leaders Fumble at the Goal Line with Performance and Career Discussions

Leaders are starting to place more emphasis on performance and career conversations with their teams.  The motivations vary... investing in talent, charging up the environment with a development focus, attempting to reduce turnover...but, I see a lot of leaders doing a lot of things right.          

They're walking their talk by establishing a regular cadence of performance and career conversations, despite competing priorities, and they make sure their managers do as well.  They are pushing for more candor in discussions about performance.  Further, they prepare for the conversations thoroughly, including getting input from the employee and some of the people s/he works with.  And the leaders I talk to report feeling good about the the quality of many of the conversations.  

Then, far too often, something curious happens.  

The employee's performance doesn't change and there seems to be little follow-through on the investments in the career building blocks that were discussed.  More surprising, employee survey results come back indicating leaders aren't giving performance feedback and don't care about employees' careers.  

Huh?  With this much effort to try to get it right, how could that be the outcome?  

In my view, the reason is leaders are dropping the ball...right at the goal line...by failing to complete the critical last step:  they are not putting accountability for performance and career growth back on the employee at the end of the discussion.    

The good news is there is a stone simple fix that works most of the time.      

   The reason is leaders are dropping the ball... right at the goal line... by failing to complete the critical last step: they are not putting accountability for performance and career growth back on the employee at the end of the discussion.  

First, some context: In Answering the Call of the Generosity Gene:  How Leaders Can Help Their Employees Grow, I suggested five strategies that leaders could follow to develop the people on their team.    

Here is a quote from that article:  "Here's the reality: the people on your team develop themselves. They have their own inner orienting mechanisms that they are consciously or unconsciously responding to. They paddle their own canoes. They keep driving and stretching and learning and getting up off the mat. Or they don't."  

While it is up to individuals to develop themselves, the leader is by no means "off the hook." The leader has to establish the right environment for personal and career growth.  

In that article, I argued that one of the ways you can create that environment is to nudge employees to "be intentional" about their development and career. And the end of a performance or career discussion is the highest leverage moment to apply that nudge.  

So how can leaders stop fumbling at the goal line on performance/career discussions and really punch it in to drive development outcomes?  After every performance or career conversation ask the employees, within a week, to send you an email where they:  

  1. summarize what they heard you say about their performance/career growth (strengths and development areas),
  2. what their action plan is to respond to the feedback, and
  3. what specific help they need from you to support their performance improvement and career objectives.

Each element plays an important role and should not be excluded.  

What They Heard.  This step is perhaps the most critical of the three.  I have worked with so many leaders who insist they were direct in the conversation about the employee's gaps, but when I talk to the employee, s/he tells me the boss thinks they are doing great!    

Yes, many employees just hear what they want to hear and that usually includes blocking out the parts they don't like.    

But many leaders also bear responsibility for the disconnect.  They worry they might offend or lose the person or just that the message might affect their ongoing relationship.  So they decide they can't be "too negative."  As a result, they put 30 qualifiers on what they say which creates so much "noise" that the signal...the message about the development areas...gets lost.  

By asking the employee to summarize what they heard about their strengths and development needs that were discussed, you can be sure the right messages got through.  If they miss something, including how great you said they were in certain areas, you can fine-tune their summary to ensure clarity and the right emphasis.  

Their Action Plan. Asking employees to put an action plan together to respond to the feedback sends the message that performance improvement and career growth are theirs to manage.  If they are going to manage it, it is wise to have a plan vs. leaving it to chance.  This step should help get that plan created.  

Moreover, once a plan is in place you have something you can use to further support the employee in his/her growth.  This is not a "gotcha ya."  It's the opposite.  This is the plan they developed to improve and you are using that plan to support and coach them.  

Support They Need. Again, this is the right message: they drive and you steer from the back, like those big fire engines.  They make the plan and they do the work.  Your role is support, guidance, removing whatever obstacles you can, and trying to create opportunities that are aligned with their objectives.    

   This is a management "best practice," but no best practice is foolproof.  

Asking the employee to come back in a week with their summary of what they heard, their action plan, and the support they want from you will correct the disconnect for 85-90% of employees and result in more rapid performance and career development progress.  

This is a management "best practice," but no best practice is foolproof.    

Believe it or not, despite explicitly asking for it, about 10-15% of employees with not send you that email.  They won't summarize what they heard, nor will they make a plan, nor be clear with you on the support they want.  This suggests they might not be willing to acknowledge the problems and gaps, nor take responsibility for fixing them.  They might, in their heart of hearts, not even believe they can fix them.  

While it is a relatively small percentage of employees that fail to follow through, don't think that this is unusual.  Every leader will encounter direct reports like this at some point.    

While it's not unusual, buckle up.  Building post discussion performance and career momentum with these employees will require a Plan B and, likely, some heavier lifting.  

Dennis Adsit, Ph.D. is the President of Adsum Insights and designer of The First 100 Days and Beyond, a consulting service for leaders in transition who want or need to get off to the best possible start in their new job.  


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