At some point in your leadership career, you’ll need to care about performance management. My first bit of advice is the hardest: don’t ever let yourself think or say the words “performance management.” This is impossible, but aspirational. I will explain.
My hard earned definition of performance management: a well-defined workflow that either leads to an employee’s improved performance or their departure.
The moment you say or think “performance management,” you leave regular management and the rules of engagement change. The natural way you interact and communicate with this individual become structured and unnatural. Easy going conversations become stilted oddly… timed. and strangely punctuated. Smart, charismatic humans will tell you, “This is part of being a manager.” These humans are right, and while there are leadership merit badges to be acquired during performance management, the ultimate badge is awarded when you don’t end up in performance management.
The situations resulting in performance management are as varied as the individuals involved in them, but I am steadfast in my advice. Do all you can to avoid the consequential mindset of performance management because once you’re there, reality changes.
The Checklist Sentence
In our 1:1, you start the conversation, “Nelson has been here six months, and I do not see the sustained productivity. I am thinking about…”
I interrupt you, which is rude, but you were about to say performance management, and I can’t have that. I hold up one finger, and I ask the only question that matters:
“Have you had multiple face-to-face conversations over multiple months with the employee where you have clearly explained and agreed there is a gap in performance?”
It’s a big question so while you construct your answer; I am going to break down the question idea by idea and word by word because there are significant words and concept in that big sentence that humans like forget or ignore.
Multiple conversations. “Rushing it” – the classic bad entry path into performance management. For the reason that feels completely valid at the time, an eager manager decides to get real with an employee. They have one hard conversation that goes poorly, so they decide it’s time for performance management.
No. Also, no. Three substantive conversations – minimum. You need to give yourself time to explain the situation clearly, and you need to give them ample time to think about what you said and ask clarifying questions. Chances are, especially for new managers, that what they think they’re saying is not what is being said especially when the message is critical feedback. The second and third conversations are essential opportunities for communication error correction.
Face-to-face conversations. I gave them the feedback in an email. No, you just sent them an email with no opportunity to debate and discuss. Feedback is two-way communication, and when you are uncomfortably sitting there delivering complex constructive feedback, you can see with your eyeballs how they hear it. Email, Slack, and any other non-face-to-face medium is a hard situation escape route.
Many months. I used to be scared of flying. Takeoffs were the worst. I had a process of counting backward by seven by an arbitrarily large number I randomly picked to keep my mind off of my imminent death. It distracted me, but you know what helped my fear? Flying. A lot. For years.
Substantive changes to deep-rooted human behavior are often necessary to correct issues with humans that lead to performance management, and that means talking about those issues. Repeatedly. In different contexts. For months. I’ve handily tucked the most useful piece of advice in the middle of this article: give yourself months and months to discuss a gap in performance. Analyze it from different angles and make it about learning rather than a step on the road to performance management. This requires that your feedback is…
Clearly explained. If whatever the emerging performance issue had an obvious fix, you would just say to the individual, Hey, I asked for XYZ and got ABC. Let’s debug this together and figure out what happened. You are currently not in a situation where the path forward is obvious which is why you take the time to clearly explain the situation. You write it down before you say it. You ask a trusted someone to listen to your explanation and see if it resonates. Then, you clearly explain the situation to your employee.
Did it work? Maybe. There’s an easy way to find out.
And agreed there is a gap in performance The final clause in our sentence is the most important because if they don’t agree with your description of the situation, they aren’t going to act. How are you going to tell if they agree? You ask.
Is it clear what I’m describing? Did that make sense? Do you agree with my assessment?
The questions above asked within an aura of performance management sound entirely different than they are asked as a regular course of being a leader. The structure and formality of how I’m breaking down the performance question sentence might give you the impression I expect your conversation to be structured and formal. Nope nope nope. While there is pre-work in having these conversations, your attitude, your demeanor is that of a coach. If you’ve flipped the switch on performance management, your demeanor is that of the Grim Reaper, and that’s the difference between them thinking, “Oh, I get it. I know what I need to do” versus “Oh, I get it. I should be looking for a new job.”
What if they don’t agree? Great. What wasn’t clear? What did you hear me say? What data do I not have? You’ve begun a healthy and clarifying conversation where the stakes are not fire, or do not fire, but how can we figure out how to communicate and work better.
What if they still don’t agree? No problem, let’s agree to table this now. Give ourselves a week to both percolate on the conversation and pick it up next week in our 1:1.
What if they still don’t agree? I have to follow this path because you, as a leader, are going to find yourself two months into a conversation where either you’re not clearly explaining or perhaps they just don’t want to hear what you have to say. Performance management time, right? Wrong.
Try one more perspective. Write your feedback down1. This might feel like a formal step towards performance management; we’re still not there. We’re removing the interpersonal dynamics from the situation and focusing on the words transformed into sentences delivering a critical thought. Yes, there is a smidge of formality that comes with the written word, but in my experience, it comes with a higher chance of clarity.
The reality is that you’re always managing performance. Your very existence as a leader sets one performance bar. How you act, what you say, how you treat others, how you work, all of your attributes influence how your team performs because you demonstrate what you value as a leader.
The performance management attitude I want you to avoid is the flip-a-switch “Well, now it’s time to get serious” approach with your team because in my experience it’s manager shorthand for “How do I let this human go?” rather than “How do I make this human better?”
There are very clear, obvious, and immediate situations where you let a human go. If they are stealing from you, you let them go. There are others, but the vast majority of the situations surrounding performance are fixable. The work is complex, uncomfortable, time-consuming, and often hard to measure, but it is during these hard conversations that you become a better communicator, you learn the value of different perspective, you build empathy, you become a better coach, and you become a better leader.
- Yeah, I know I said don’t deliver feedback digitally. In the case you write feedback down, you deliver it face-to-face. ↩