One of a manager’s greatest challenges is how to have a conversation with their staff about performance. Talking to people about their performance, past, present and future, both good and bad, is at the core of a manager’s responsibility. When a manager avoids these conversations, or does them poorly, it calls into question the very performance of that manager.

Performance management is often associated with the formal planning and review cycle and/or disciplinary procedures. However, research conducted by the Corporate Leadership Council in 2003* found that the action by managers that had the greatest single positive impact on staff performance was the fairness and accuracy of the informal feedback they provided to staff. Of the top 10 items that had a positive impact on performance, eight were related to informal feedback and day to day interventions such as helping their staff to solve problems.

While formal performance management is important in any organisation, the research suggests the formal processes have less to do with inspiring good performance than what a manager does everyday in raising issues, adjusting plans and taking an interest in the work of their direct reports.


Fairness and Accuracy

So what is the big deal about fairness and accuracy of the feedback managers provide? What does this look like in practical terms? Fair and accurate day-to-day feedback comprises a number of elements:

  • It is based on observable data that can be validated and is therefore accurate
  • The person receiving the feedback has a right of reply and the opportunity to explain their actions
  • The staff member’s response is treated with respect and is taken into account in interpreting the data, reaching a conclusion and forming decisions
  • That the discussion is conducted in an environment of good faith and there is no hidden agenda

Fairness and accuracy are closely connected. However, this presents a number of challenges to a manager. It suggests that in order to provide fair feedback, the manager must put aside any judgments they have about the person and listen openly to the person’s response. A manager must recognise they have only a few pieces of the jigsaw and that the picture will not take shape until they have the staff member’s pieces as well. It is only once the issues have been explored and the causes for good or poor performance are clearly understood that a manager should make a decision about future action.


Establishing Good Will

To establish the good will necessary to explore the causes of good or poor performance a manager should:

  • Be transparent about the context and purpose of the conversation
  • Provide feedback based on observable data and invite the person to respond
  • Engage in a conversation about the reasons for the performance in order to maintain good performance and/or correct poor performance
  • Be open to new information as the staff member presents their perspective and ideas
  • Explain how the information will be used in planning for future actions
  • Be prepared to put the conversation ‘on hold’ if either party need time to process the information – but not indefinitely!

Providing everyday feedback that meets the tests of fairness and accuracy is a great way to establish a positive, productive work culture.

Corporate Leadership Council (2003) ‘Performance Management – Understanding your Role as a Manager’.

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