by Shayne Thomas
04 Oct 2019
Make Your Check-In Conversations Count
What every manager should know about ongoing performance check-ins
This quote sums up our core belief perfectly: that continuous performance management is critical for the long-term success and well-being of both employees and companies alike.
As an HR professional or people manager, you understand that annual performance review check-ins—while still an important milestone in an employee’s life cycle—are really just scratching the surface of performance management. In fact, it’s merely a milestone, one single touchpoint in the employee-manager relationship where both parties can jointly review year-long achievements, discuss areas for growth, and set goals for the year ahead.
And while this makes it sound like the annual performance review is an efficient way to tie the proverbial bow on performance management altogether, failing to keep regular check-in conversations going all year long can have serious consequences down the road: poor communication, lack of employee or team engagement, high turnover, and the list goes on.
Truth be told, if you haven’t ever strayed away from the annual performance review model, you probably don’t even realize the value it can bring to your business—or even how it can fix a number of the employee engagement and retention issues you’re already facing today.
Did You Know? Employees who receive frequent, ongoing feedback are six times more likely to be engaged and three times as likely to believe the feedback they receive is relevant and meaningful. (source)
Knowing this, it may be the perfect time to consider moving your business to a continuous performance management model if you haven’t done so already. And if you’ve been brave enough to get those wheels into motion—just know we’ve got your back every step of the way!— you may have noticed that shifting your company’s behaviors, attitudes, and values to embrace a culture rooted in ongoing feedback can feel like an insurmountable feat. Why?
Because changing an entire company’s culture is basically forcing employees to change their deeply rooted habits—and as we all know, bad habits are hard to break. But no fear, with the right education, tools, and resources in place to set both managers and employees up for long-term success, you can truly reshape the employee experience (for the better).
Just keep in mind that continuous performance management is more than simply encouraging managers to have ongoing performance check-in conversations with their employees. It actually encompasses two very important, yet distinct dimensions of employee success: performance and development. Both types of check-in conversations can play critical roles in creating a happier, healthier, and more productive workplace.
To help you make the most of these conversations, we’ve put together a few tips that every manager should know as they dive head-first into helping their teams succeed in big ways.
The role of a performance check-in is simple: to gauge progress against goals and projects.
Many people fear the annual performance review—or any performance-based conversation— because it tends to signal “doom and gloom,” oftentimes perceived as an opportunity for a manager to highlight all of the things that an employee did wrong or could have done better over the course of the year. Unfortunately, this imbalanced focus on the negative happens all too often—and is typically a great way to encourage a once engaged employee to start looking elsewhere. So, as a starting point, keep in mind that performance check-ins are just as much about celebrating successes as they are about identifying areas for opportunity.
This is why a continuous performance model is so important. Like everything in life, successes and failures happen in real-time. Whether you have a reason to celebrate or see an opportunity to course correct, nip it in the bud whenever you have the chance. After all, if you wait too long, it can become way too easy for those negatives, even if they are few and far between, to outshine the positives.
Also, to make the conversation feel less like the aforementioned “doom and gloom,” encourage employees to guide the discussion. Have them talk about the status of short-term goals, provide updates on long-term projects, call out recent accomplishments, and pretty much share whatever it is that’s on their mind (professionally-speaking, that is). Then, use that information to provide constructive feedback and potentially even make adjustments to goals. Just be sure to make this a collaborative exercise; the priority here is to make your employees feels as though they are ultimately “in charge” of their own success.
Now, if you’re still a bit new to this whole ongoing performance check-ins process, here are a few handy questions that can help you get a productive conversation going:
- “What’s on your mind?” Open-ended questions like this are a great way to shift the ownership of the conversation to employees, giving them the space to carve out the kind of check-in conversation that will ultimately drive the most value for them.
- “What are you working on right now?” This is a perfect way to assess if employees have their priorities straight—or if they’re doing what’s needed to achieve specific goals. If you know your employees are straying from priorities a bit, don’t be afraid to follow up this question with, “Is this what you need to be working on right now?”
- “Are you hitting any obstacles or challenges?” Many employees don’t like asking for help and, more often than not, want their managers and superiors to feel like they’ve got everything under control. Unfortunately, nothing in life is perfect and, as humans, the people on your team are bound to hit a few bumps in the road from time to time. So, encourage them to share what’s weighing them down—and then use that as an opportunity to be a stellar manager (and mentor) and do whatever you can to help clear those roadblocks out of the way.
- “What do you need to succeed?” This is a variation of the question above but with one caveat: it invites your employees to suggest solutions of their own, instead of relying on you to do that for them. Just keep in mind that this is not a doppelgänger for, “How can I help you?” The role of a manager is to empower employees to overcome challenges, not to take add those challenges onto their own plates as well.
The role of a development check-in is slightly different: to identify opportunities for ongoing employee growth and career development.
Unlike performance check-ins, which can be held on a fairly steady cadence, development check-ins can be spaced out a bit more (say, once per quarter, give or take). These conversations are really an opportunity to take a pulse on employee needs, specifically honing in on skills gaps, development needs, and career goals.
As a starting point, you should focus on getting on an update any learning or extracurricular coursework in progress. Then, open up the conversation to see if employees are interested in pursuing any professional or personal training or if they’ve got any outstanding requests that have yet to be addressed. And then, finally, and this is probably what your employees care about most, take some time to collaborate on and build a reasonable career plan for them.
Just be careful not to make any promises here. A career development plan is simply another version of goal; how and when any given employee reaches that goal will be determined by a number of factors (many that are too complex to deal with here). As a general rule of thumb, though, be sure to let employees know—especially those over-jealous high performers looking for a promotion—that they need to take on the challenges that they’ll ultimately face when they climb up onto the next rung of their career ladder. (Hint: Just be sure to give them those opportunities to grow when they’re ready, or else they’ll feel like you’re holding them back!)
To get these conversations moving in the right direction, here are a few questions to ask:
- “What are you interested in?” Again, starting with an open-ended question is a great way to put ownership of career development in an employee’s hands. It will also provide you with a clear picture of how they see themselves growing into their career in both the near- and long-term. Use this to guide the conversation and provide relevant recommendations as to how they can achieve those professional and, in some circumstances, personal goals. Also, use this as an opportunity to encourage them to take advantage of the courses in your learning management system. You’ve put in the time to build a library of courses that addresses your business’s key performance and development needs; there’s a good chance there will be a course (or two) relevant to your employees’ interests and goals.
And, as mentioned above, don’t make any assumptions or promises about what your employees need to reach their goals. Everyone’s path is a little different. Some paths aren’t even linear at all (remember that career lattice we talked about?). Act as a guide and mentor here, encouraging your employees to chart the best course for their success.
- "What are you saying ‘no’ to?” This is a useful way to understand whether employees are not interested in pursuing something or if they are just too afraid to tackle on their own. Perhaps they don’t have the right skills or experience. Perhaps they think it’s too big of an obstacle to overcome. That’s where managers can come to the rescue: use this information to work with them to build an action plan that can help them overcome these potential fears.
- "What are you putting off?” Everyone is busy these days. Oftentimes, when balancing workload with perceived extracurricular (i.e. developmental) activities, employees will stay focused on getting their work done because, after all, it’s what they’re getting paid to do. But if they’re too bogged down with work—or not especially skilled at balancing the tasks on their plate—and, therefore, putting their own career development on the back-burner, this can open up the conversation to identifying ways to reorder their priorities while still keeping up with their deadlines.
The importance of having regular check-in conversations
As you can see, continuous performance management is actually a lot more than just having regular check-in conversations, whether it’s about performance or development. It’s about keeping a dialogue going with your employees all year round and encouraging them to take their own career development seriously. When you put in the time to help your employees grow, they’ll return the favor tenfold. This is the secret to boosting employee happiness, engagement, and overall well-being. Be the manager you always wish you’d had and act as a positive role model for your team to follow. That’s what leadership is really all about.
To learn more about the ins and outs of having productive check-in conversations or to fine-tune your own feedback-giving skills, be sure to download our eBook today!