If a professional sports coach saw his elite athletes only once or twice a year and then told them everything they were doing wrong, it’s unlikely they would ever achieve any success. Yet when it comes to managing the performance of people in organisations, this kind of approach is standard practice. Despite overwhelming evidence that they are demotivating and demoralizing for both employees and leaders, annual or bi-annual performance appraisals are still the strategy in use by the majority of organisations.
So what’s the alternative? Well there’s one that builds trust, loyalty and engagement and unlike other people strategies, costs nothing and can be implemented immediately:
The Monthly One-On-One
Of all the management strategies I’ve ever seen or used, the monthly one-on-one system, in which a manager takes time out to have a productive, reflective discussion with each employee and create a personalised action plan, is a stand-out. The most important relationship in an organisation, is the one that exists between an employee and his immediate supervisor and if this connection flourishes, so does the business. This is what one-on-ones cultivate. They are a superb tool for managers to build strong bonds with team members which is why learning how to do them well is the best leadership training ever.
- Identify common problems to be acted on: One-on-ones enable leaders to gauge the pulse of an organisation and find out what’s really going on. If one person says that the new IT system is twice as cumbersome as the old one, or that customer enquiries have plummeted because of poor ads, then that individual may just be externalising to compensate for their own lack of results. But if everyone is highlighting the same issue, then it’s something real that needs to be addressed.
- Inspire with the big picture: It’s so easy for both employees and managers alike to get caught up in day to day activities, focusing only on perspiration, not inspiration. Yet employees want to work for organisations that have a clear direction and purpose that engages and enthuses them. One-on-ones create a dedicated time for telling the business story, including people in the vision and sharing with them how their actions contribute to moving the business forward. If people feel like and are genuinely part of something bigger than themselves, they become more engaged and productive, and are less likely to leave.
- Help people develop, both personally and professionally: By flipping from the conventional appraisal attitude of telling or disciplining, to a more open approach of listening, exploring and resolving, one-on-ones become a power tool for improving people’s skills and capability. They also provide a set monthly time for rewarding and recognising good performers. An added bonus is that there’s rarely any need to sack anyone. When people face up squarely to poor performance each month through the non-achievement of their own action plans, they either improve or leave of their own volition. This cuts the need for HR mediators too, because when people are talking to each other regularly, they don’t need a middleman to sort out problems.
One of the main reasons employers tell me why they don’t do regular one-on-ones is lack of time. They see them as simply more meetings, unproductive ‘out of office’ sessions. Yet because they’ve never done them, they’ve never witnessed the amazing power that they unleash. Doing one-on-ones regularly actually saves time by reducing office conflict and stress, defusing complaints, expediting solutions, and improving performance. Workers become happier, customers better served and the leader can focus on business planning, strategizing, and celebrating rather than continually recruiting and cracking the whip. It’s a far more satisfying experience for everyone.
Inspiring and Effective One-On-Ones
Like every system, reading about it is one thing, implementing it correctly is another. Leaders who get this wrong experience little improvement which is why I’ve put free tools on my website to show the step-by-step process for conducting effective one-on-ones. Here’s just a brief overview:
It’s a coaching approach that produces remarkable improvement. IT high performer, Atlassian axed their bi-annual performance appraisals and implemented monthly check-ins. This required some restructuring as certain teams were simply too big for managers to be able to do them effectively. The results were worth the effort, however. The organisation has since won numerous Best Employer awards; both independent and internal staff engagement surveys show extraordinary high engagement scores of 87% and 83% respectively; and the company has found the smaller more flexible teams they created have been a boon to their bottom line.
As French novelist Marcel Proust once said, ‘The only real voyage of discovery consists not of seeking new landscapes, but of having new eyes.” It’s time we started looking at performance appraisals through a different lens.