One of the most critical skills a new manager can develop is the ability to hold meaningful conversations with direct reports. But new managers often struggle with basic performance management topics such as goal setting and day-to-day coaching.
As a result, they either engage in conversations that don’t provide the clarity needed or use such a heavy hand that they damage relationships. In today’s faster paced and more diverse workplace, effective communication is one of the defining skills new managers need to effectively lead others towards higher levels of performance.
Planning, coaching, and review – four skills and four conversations
Performance management consists of three main activities – planning, day-to-day coaching and review. To be successful with each of these activities, first-time managers need exceptional communication skills in four areas: listening, asking questions, sharing thoughts and expressing confidence in the direct report. Poorly developed skills in any of these areas can lead to declined employee performance or even failure.
In creating the curriculum for a new first-time manager training programme, we built in an exercise that helps new leaders see how difficult and poorly developed listening skills are for most people.
Participants are asked to listen to a partner for three minutes without saying a word, counting the times they feel the urge to interrupt. Most people are surprised at how often they catch themselves waiting to respond or looking for a break so that they can talk instead of listening at any level.
Once we have their attention, we teach new managers that the goal is not to simply be quiet or listen just to appease people – but instead to listen with the specific intention of being influenced by what they are hearing. In other words, listen to learn. This is an open, receptive, and engaged type of listening that encourages people to share more.
In addition to listening to words being spoken, we also teach new managers to observe subtleties such as tone, meaning and values people might be communicating. A lot of people do not share exactly what they are thinking at first – they share only information they view as safe and suitable to share. Great managers draw out feelings from direct reports and listen in a way that allows their people to feel heard, valued and capable.
Questions can help with this process. During a conversation, structuring a response in the form of a question can effectively promote discussion rather than shutting it down. We first learnt about this skill, enquire for insight, from our executive coaches.
They taught us about asking open-ended questions with a focus on moving forward. The emphasis should be on what and how rather than why.
The goal is to encourage exploration and understanding instead of passing judgement. For example, when speaking with a team member about a bad interaction with a customer, instead of asking “Why did you do that?” an effective manager will say, “That didn’t go very well. What happened?” And then they will listen, listen, and listen some more.
Asking what and how questions generates a useful response, whereas asking why questions can make a direct report feel as if they are being interrogated, effectively bringing the conversation to a halt.
The third communication skill we teach is tell your truth. This skill is focused on sharing honest thoughts and feelings with a team member. Many people in their first management role find it difficult to say exactly what they mean.
While new managers are generally comfortable with supporting behaviours, some feel awkward when it comes to giving honest direction to others; e.g., discussing performance or accountability standards or clarifying expectations.
The mistake some new managers make is telling their truth at the start of the discussion – dropping an evaluative statement and causing a defensive mind-set in their direct report.
This approach rarely ends well. The good news is that if a new manager listens and enquires appropriately, it gives them permission to tell their truth later in the conversation and share observations on what they observe without blame or judgments.
Doing this in the right order creates a safe environment where the manager and direct report can talk frankly about the situation. When new managers accomplish this, they set up a communication standard of honest and productive discussions going forward.
The fourth critical communication skill we teach is to express confidence –to establish positive, sincere rapport with direct reports. The manager should conclude conversations with direct reports on a positive, encouraging note. The goal is to build self-assurance in the other person by highlighting their skills and citing previous successes.
My father, Ken Blanchard, is often asked what he would most like to be remembered for. He always replies that expressing confidence in people by praising them – catching people doing things right – is the best way to enhance relationships. Sadly, praise is rare in many workplaces. For years, we’ve asked rooms full of people the question “How many of you get too much praise at work?”
Everybody laughs – but nobody raises their hand. New managers who express confidence in their people and build them up regularly will help frame communication as a positive experience.
Four essential conversations to master
- Using these skills, new leaders can become much more effective in conducting the performance-related conversations every first-time manager needs to master. We believe there are four:
- The goal setting conversation, which takes place at the beginning of any goal or task.
- The praising conversation, which happens when things are going well.
- The redirecting conversation, which is necessary when things get off-track.
- The wrapping up conversation, which is used to bring closure to a completed task or project, celebrate wins, and reflect on lessons learnt.
In spite of everything that has been written about the importance of goal setting and feedback, there is, unfortunately, still a large gap between what people want from their managers and what they are experiencing.
In a study we did with a US-based training magazine in 2013, we asked 700 people how often they talked to their immediate supervisor about goals and feedback. We were told by 28 per cent of the respondents that they rarely or never discussed future goals or tasks with their boss, even though 70 per cent wished they did.
And 36 per cent responded that they rarely or never received performance feedback, while more than two-thirds of respondents – 67 per cent – wished they did.
The goal setting conversation
This conversation gets things moving with regard to an objective, project or task a manager and direct report are beginning. The purpose of the goal setting conversation is to answer the fundamental question What needs to be done and by when?
We have been looking at the goal setting conversation for many years now – ever since the publication of my father’s best-selling business book with Spencer Johnson, The One Minute Manager, in 1981. In our experience, goal setting does not happen naturally.
It requires a conversation and follow-up that includes goals that are clear, compelling, and written down. A goal is sufficiently clear and compelling when it articulates the direction and desired outcome of the project or task in a way that both manager and direct report understand. Managers need to be clear about what is due and when. Goal setting should not be a guessing game for the direct report.
The praising conversation
The praising conversation also comes from The One Minute Manager and lets the direct report know they are on the right path. As mentioned earlier, people want – and need – feedback from their manager. But often, good performance goes unnoticed. That’s a missed opportunity.
For best results, praising needs to be timely and incremental, and it needs to be specific about the behaviour. It also needs to promote self-reflection. Managers do this by asking questions such as “How do you feel about what you just accomplished?” The goal is to encourage the employee to reflect on their positive achievement. Effective managers help their people develop the skill of catching themselves doing something right by identifying the specific behaviours that helped them achieve the goal, and by sharing that they noticed and appreciated those behaviours.
The redirecting conversation
This conversation is critical when the manager notices someone’s performance is off-track and takes action before it becomes a crisis. In the original One Minute Manager, this was referred to as the One Minute Reprimand.
But in today’s business world where everyone is learning at an accelerated pace, Spencer Johnson and my father updated this to a One Minute Re-Direct. It allows the manager to provide the direct report with immediate and incremental feedback on what needs to be done differently. It is important to keep the conversation goal-focused rather than person-focused – to talk about the specific behaviour that needs to be changed rather than criticise the person.
Redirecting needs to be both honest and kind. New managers must address off-track behaviour before their own emotions erupt. If the manager stays quiet until a situation turns into a crisis, it’s more difficult to maintain composure when they do confront the issue.
The purpose of a redirecting conversation is to guide people towards their goals by helping them know as soon as specific behaviours are out of alignment with a goal. Remember to express confidence in the person’s ability to succeed.
The wrapping up conversation
The final conversation is the wrapping up conversation. This is something new we identified while developing our new programme. What we found is managers seldom actually close tasks and assignments; instead of taking time to review what was accomplished, they jump into the next project.
Although this is not surprising given the pace of business, it does cause both managers and team members to miss out on the important opportunity to celebrate, savour accomplishments and learn what can be done to improve the next time.
Wrapping up conversations work best when they are scheduled at the end of each project or goal to celebrate accomplishments and acknowledge learning. It’s also a great time for a manager to accept accountability for what they may not have handled properly during the course of the project.
This conversation provides an opportunity to acknowledge mutual responsibility, recognise what was learnt and move forward. It provides closure in a way that creates a fresh slate for the next project, task or goal.
A great side benefit of the wrapping up conversation is that trust and credibility are enhanced when people acknowledge their mistakes. Great managers have a well-oiled reverse gear – they know when and how to acknowledge their role in something that didn’t work out.
Helping new managers succeed
New managers have so much to learn. But research done by US-based consultancy Zenger Folkman identifies that the average manager doesn’t get training in leadership topics until ten years after they become a manager.
In our experience, that’s far too late as too many bad habits can become ingrained.
Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill points this out in her research. Over 20 years of study, Hill has identified that the poor habits new managers develop in their first year can hinder their growth for the rest of their professional careers.
Conversely, managers who develop good performance management skills early in their careers enjoy positive business relationships with their people. The net result is people who perform on time and as expected.
It’s essential that organisations help their managers get off to a good start. Millions of millennials are now moving into their first manager job – and every year, millions more will be following right behind them. Learning and development professionals need to provide the direction and training that helps new managers get off to a great start. A focus on communication skills and mastering four performance management conversations will help new managers succeed.
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