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The Manager’s Role in Performance

Regular one-on-one conversations are opportunities for managers to ensure there are no obstacles in an employee’s way.

November 2, 2011
Related Topics: Diversity Management, Performance Management
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When managers consistently build one-on-one dialogues with employees, there are often measurable improvements in productivity, quality and personnel dynamics. Yet most leaders, managers and supervisors fail to regularly provide the guidance and direction necessary to support a real performance management process. They don’t clarify performance expectations or offer candid feedback on an ongoing basis. As a result, these managers fail to consistently assist project and resource planning, track performance, correct failure and reward success.

To strengthen the day-to-day working relationships between managers and their direct reports, the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine (HJF) conducted extensive training. The centerpiece of the approach was to get managers at all levels into the habit of conducting one-on-one conversations with their direct reports every day, every week or every other week to spell out performance expectations and review previously set performance expectations, building regular one-on-one performance dialogues into the corporate culture.

“In many cases, the level of regular engagement between managers and their direct reports increased dramatically, and the impact on performance was evident,” said Debbie-Jo Zarnick, HJF’s director of human resources. “In those cases, we could see error rates decreasing and productivity increasing as a direct result of the regular one-on-one performance dialogues.”

Accounting firm Clifton Gunderson LLP (CG) introduced regular one-on-one performance dialogues between partners and senior managers and the associates they manage. At CG, the approach was dubbed HOT — hands-on and transactional — but the approach was similar to that used at HJF. Through training and internal communications strategies, talent managers promoted building more highly engaged supervisory relationships using consistent, structured, one-on-one performance dialogues.

Lauren Malensek, CG’s chief human resource officer, has written extensively about the program’s success and its impact on profitability and retention. Malensek said the firm’s partners became increasingly committed to the approach “because they have seen what it can do for their business results.”

The more one-on-ones a manager conducts, the stronger and more informed the manager’s judgments will be about what can be done and what cannot, what resources are necessary, what problems may occur, what expectations are reasonable, what goals and deadlines are sufficiently ambitious, and what counts as success versus failure. These conversations are opportunities to ensure there are no obstacles in the employee’s way.

This is also the manager’s chance to answer questions, solicit input on additional development needs, provide support and get firsthand information about the employee’s experience on the front line.

It is time-consuming for managers to conduct regular, one-on-one performance conversations with direct reports, but it can be far more time-consuming and costly when managers fail to conduct them. Unnecessary problems occur more often, and small problems are more likely to grow more complex. Meanwhile, managers end up doing tasks that could be delegated.

Once a manager gets into a routine of one-on-ones with each employee, conversations don’t need to be lengthy. The best practice is to keep them brief and simple. Talk through each employee’s work of the day or week in sufficient detail to provide feedback, guidance, support and course correction.

Often 15 or 20 minutes per conversation is all a manager needs. It’s a moving target. Over time, managers become more adept at gauging how much time to spend with each employee.

Frustrated managers can copy what the most effective managers do every day:
Step 1: Get in the habit of holding regular daily or weekly one-on-one meetings with each direct report. Try to spend an hour a day conducting one-on-ones.
Step 2: In these one-on-ones, practice talking like a coach or a teacher.
Step 3: Build each unique dialogue with each person based on what’s needed to be successful in the role, and what that person needs to improve his or her performance.
Step 4: Make accountability a process by getting people in the habit of giving regular ongoing accounts of their performance in these one-on-ones.
Step 5: Spell out expectations in detail every step of the way.
Step 6: Track performance in writing every step of the way.
Step 7: Solve small problems before they turn into big problems.
Step 8: Do more for some people and less for others based on what they need.

Bruce Tulgan is the founder of RainmakerThinking Inc., a management training firm, and author of It’s Okay to Be the Boss. He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.

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