Lucy Adams
July 4, 2022
Reading time: 10 minutes
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The frequent check-in. It sounds so simple doesn’t it? So why is it so difficult to achieve and how can you make it a reality. In this blog we look at what the HR teams who have managed it are doing right.

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. For example, 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.

They help managers to do it differently

Much of our performance management training for managers has centred around the completion of the process 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.

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 may mean some of them 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.

So, in summary:

  • Start again from scratch, resist trying to hold onto some of the old structures
  • Focus your approach on the leaders who might be up for doing something different
  • Let employees decide when they want one and avoid set frequencies
  • Give managers tips and conversation starters to build their confidence

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