The subtle art of performance management.

How to successfully avoid those difficult conversations

“What are the parts of your role you least look forward to?”

This is a question I regularly ask of clients when we’re starting out on personal or team development.

As is often the case, the executive I asked it of on this occasion was pretty happy in his work, but after casting his mind around for a moment, replied, “I don’t look forward to performance management conversations, but then I don’t suppose anybody really does, do they?”

It’s an interesting question. I guess there may be some people that do - certain characters from The Apprentice spring to mind, although who knows how performative those scenes are.

In real life, and maybe it’s just the company I keep or the companies I work with, but I would guess well over half of the leaders of whom I ask that question, at some point will identify those difficult performance conversations as something they don’t enjoy.

Moreover, when I ask the reverse question, “What do you enjoy most about your role?” nobody has ever listed ‘performance management’.

Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to do it at all?

He’s the interesting thing though, when I dig a little deeper, I tend to find it’s those leaders who enjoy those conversations the least, who end up doing them the most. Many of the people who don’t mention the topic, when later asked, say something along the lines of: “It’s not something I really have an issue with, but then again, it’s not something I ever really have to do. I’m lucky, I’ve got a great team.”

As the old aphorism goes, you make your own luck.

When we get around to talking about their team individually, those leaders unfazed by performance conversations tend to contextualise their critiques with insights into personal situations (their lives outside of work); preferences (square pegs and round holes); and personality (often around maturity and areas for growth).

And when I get to see them in action, far from never doing performance management, they’re doing it all the time in subtle ways: challenging, recognising, coaching, admonishing.

As one reflected once I’d shared my observations, “You’re right. I hadn’t really thought about it, but now you mention it, probably the hardest thing is getting the right balance of light and shade – when to push, when to step back. It’s just different for all of them… and I suppose when to call time and help them find something else.”

Whether that leader realised it or not, she had just revealed her whole philosophy on performance management. She’s not asking herself why someone doesn’t give her what she needs; her interest is in understanding them well enough so she can work out what she needs to give them, so that they can give her what she needs.

And even on those rare occasions when the barriers are just too high to surmount, for her it’s not about getting rid, it’s genuinely about helping them work out what they need, so they can find it somewhere else.

Little wonder that she’s one of those leaders for whom performance management conversations aren’t an issue, or that she does, indeed, have a great team.