Lucy Adams
September 2, 2019
Reading time: 15 minutes
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I was in a café in New York recently and I asked for a latte. My waiter nodded and then replied, ‘I can make that happen.’ … like I had asked for a miracle rather than a simple hot beverage! Having relayed the anecdote to my husband, we now always stupidly respond to simple requests, like ‘Can you put the rubbish out?’ or ‘Could you feed the cats?’ with ‘I can make that happen!’ like we are about to part the Red Sea, feed the five thousand … or perform some other miracle – like making frequent check-ins a reality …

The frequent check-in. It sounds so simple doesn’t it? So why is it so elusive, so difficult to achieve? We’ve already done the hard bits. We’ve produced the research to make the case that our current approach isn’t delivering. We’ve read innumerable blogs on the latest thinking. We have presented to the Board on the need for something new and they have reluctantly agreed. And we’ve convinced our leadership team to abandon performance ratings, having finally persuaded them that this performance comfort blanket is worthless.

So, all we need to do now is move to frequent check-ins …

And suddenly this feels like the hardest bit of all.

Our managers, who had been bleating on about how much they hated the traditional PM system, are suddenly nostalgic for the good old days when they knew ‘what they had to do and when’. Our employees who have never enjoyed being rated, are now complaining that they don’t know how they compare to their colleagues. Our HR team who had dreaded their annual role of ‘appraisal compliance officer’ are now unsure about the role they should be playing.

So, how do you make frequent check-ins happen?

At Disruptive HR we meet with hundreds of HR professionals every year, the vast majority of whom are undertaking some form of change to their traditional performance management system. The ones who are enjoying the most success tend to adopt four key approaches.

They build from scratch

One of the most common mistakes we see are HR teams trying to hold onto the old system whilst encouraging the move to frequent check-ins. They retain the annual cycle, the end of year forms, sometimes, even the ratings – and then try and layer frequent check-ins over the top. You can understand why they adopt this approach as it feels less scary if they can point to the incremental nature of the change. But rarely do we see frequent check-ins become the norm whilst they cling to the old structures. If the old structure remains intact, the focus on the check-in gets lost. Managers continue to see performance management as a formal process that they have to do at certain points in the year. Completing their forms and giving out ratings remain the key outputs.

HR teams that have the courage to start from scratch are typically more successful as new behavioural patterns can be formed without the temptation to slip back into the old. The human instinct to put off that potentially tricky conversation till the end of year review can no longer be indulged. The HR team can focus all of their efforts on helping managers and employees have better conversations rather than completing the paperwork.

Have the confidence to completely get rid of the old and build the new from scratch. Abandon the annual objective setting, the end of year review, the ratings, the forms – all of the performance paraphernalia we have built up over decades. Have the courage to adopt a minimalist approach that says ‘the ONLY thing that helps people to improve performance is to have great and frequent conversations’ and keep this as the focus.

They resist the temptation to compensate for poor managers

HR professionals carry a terrible burden that shapes almost everything we do; we believe we are responsible for compensating for poor managers. Almost all of our heavy, bureaucratic processes are driven by the desire to prevent our employees suffering at the hands of managers who have no interest or skill in developing, engaging and leading their people. So, we make them do an annual appraisal to ensure that they have ‘at least one conversation a year’ and give out ratings so that they ‘let their people know how they are doing’, etc. Whilst they may be worthy aims, our mission to save employees from rubbish managers is really holding us back from doing anything new. The HR teams who are managing to get frequent check-ins going typically resist the urge to compensate. They accept that whilst they will make significant gains in performance and motivation from a new approach, there will be consequences that may feel uncomfortable at first. By removing the structural constraints of the traditional PM system, they will be leaving the poor managers to their own devices and that will mean many of them may do nothing at all to help their people in terms of performance.

To help us get over any guilty feelings we might have, I’d suggest that we ask ourselves two questions;

  1. Do we honestly believe that the experience of an annual performance review at the hands of a poor manager would be a positive one?
  2. Is it fair to inflict a process that is a miserable one for the majority, just so that we can force poor managers to do something they don’t want to do?

Hopefully our answer to both these questions is a resounding ‘NO!’ and we can focus less on mitigating the impact of poor managers and more on helping them improve or move on!

They let employees determine how frequent a check-in should be

One of the dilemmas that I see HR teams wrestling with is the question of ‘how frequent should a frequent check-in be’? Often, they go for the nice neat answer of once a month or weekly. To me this is a classic case of applying old thinking to our new approach; trying to apply a structure from the centre to cover a multitude of different needs. Companies like Vistaprint who have been successful in getting frequent check-ins going have applied them alongside the newer approach of being ‘employee-centred’. So, instead of having a recommended frequency, they encourage managers to find out from their employees how often they might need or want one – or establish a framework where the employee is the person who ‘makes it happen’ rather than the manager. Those of you who are familiar with Disruptive HR’s EACH model (Employees as Adults, Consumers and Human beings) will know that this employee owned approach to performance management ticks all three of our boxes.

Adult – employees are grown ups who know what they need to help them develop

Consumer – employees all have different needs and wants around helping them perform

Human beings – employees are much more likely to improve their performance if they own it rather than having it ‘done to them’

They help managers to do it differently

Much of our performance management training for managers has centred around the completion of the process (how to set SMART objectives, how to apply ratings, how to complete the forms, etc) rather than how to actually help their employees do something better next week than they are doing today. HR teams who are getting traction with frequent check-ins are supporting managers to have better conversations instead.

This includes helping managers to move from seeing performance management as the means of judging or assessing an employee and instead of providing coaching support. For example, EY’s ‘Leading with Questions’ initiative which helped managers have better coaching conversations through ‘listening with curiosity’ or Cargill’s ‘Everyday Performance Management’ and their focus on the development of coaching skills and two-way conversations.

It doesn’t always have to be a training programme. Sometimes, just providing managers with a few choice phrases or questions to kick things off can be helpful. Our Leader Box app might give you some ideas, or you can look at the examples in the recent excellent HBR article by Marcus Buckingham where he suggests alternative language to make feedback more useful.

Frequent check-ins are definitely the right way to go if you are thinking about making changes to your traditional performance management system. But be brave. Let go of the big set pieces. Don’t apply old thinking to their implementation and instead make them your primary vehicle for performance and motivation improvements and you will make them happen!

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