Rewiring Performance Management for the Digital Workplace: Leader as Coach

It’s time to kill the performance review.

The traditional performance review process is like going to an angry, bitter dentist upset at having to spend hours writing up reports about each patient. Instead of examining your teeth, they read you the report about your teeth. They tell you your teeth are rotting — but don’t tell you which ones. Then, they ask you to leave and come back in six months’ time.

This approach to performance management is an outdated model, a relic of the industrial age. It was designed for an era where top-down control of individual employee performance was the priority. “Disruption” hadn’t been invented yet.

In our digital age, where collaboration is the new normal, this model doesn’t work. In Deloitte’s 2019 human capital trends survey, 96% of employees reported engaging in some kind of team-based work, and for good reason: It’s effective. Almost three-fourths of respondents reported some level of improvement in performance because of the shift to a network-/team-based organization.

Forward-thinking companies realize that they can’t let performance management impede managing performance. A number of the 2020 Glassdoor “Best Places to Work” have abandoned the traditional performance review. Adobe, for instance, has replaced the formal clunky traditional review process with a real-time feedback conversation it calls “The Check In.”

Want a tool to structure your own check-in conversation? Try this model. If you want better performers, each leader needs to be a better C.O.A.C.H.:

C: Connect

At its core, leadership is a relationship built through authentic connection. Spend some time genuinely engaging with your team members on a personal, human level. It’s important to build trust before jumping into task mode. If you don’t, your team members’ walls will go up — and their coachability will go down.

O: Observed

The key to good feedback is specificity. Ideally, you should coach someone on performance that you’ve observed firsthand. For example, if you’re coaching someone to become a better written communicator, pull up or print out an email he or she wrote, and refer to it in your conversation.

Viewing all feedback through a behavioral lens — what the person said or did — is key as you get into the details of the feedback conversation.

A: Ask

Most leaders have a genuine desire to be helpful and are keen to jump into the conversation and start giving feedback right away. But the goal of the conversation isn’t to give feedback. The goal is the employee’s growth. Your team members should walk away from your coaching conversations feeling inspired and armed with a clear plan to improve. Asking them first sparks ownership and inspiration.

Let’s return to the earlier example of coaching on written communication. Pull out the email, and start by asking the employee to give himself or herself feedback. Ask, “What do you think worked well? Why?” Then, ask, “What do you think could be better next time? Why?”

By asking for self-feedback first, you can accomplish two goals simultaneously: You learning how self-aware the employee is when it comes to the skills you’re discussing, and you gain a good indicator of how to adjust your feedback. Your employee’s responses will help you choose how much you should share and how deep you should go.

C: Collaborate

The “C” step of the model is the part when you can share your feedback. Here are some tips to make it sure it’s effective:

This conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. Find ways to draw the employee into the feedback conversation. For example, you could say, “In this first paragraph of your email, I didn’t read a clear central message, so I wasn’t sure of your point right away. How might you do it differently next time?”Be as specific as possible. Pull on your details from “O” (observed). Share what the employee said and did (or didn’t say or do). Share the impact that those behaviors had on you.Avoid blanket value statements. For example, saying, “That first paragraph is really great” isn’t valuable. It’s better to say, “In that first paragraph, you stated your central message immediately and outlined a clear agenda of the plan.”If you have 50 pieces of feedback on your list, identify the top three to share. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to add too much value.At the end of each piece of feedback, ask, “Does that make sense? Do you have anything to add or any questions?” Confirmation ensures understanding.

H: How

How will your team member take this conversation and move forward? The goal of the check-in is his or her business performance and personal growth. With “H,” it’s time to leave the specifics and look at the big picture. What lessons has your employee learned? How will they help him or her professionally and personally? This last step is an opportunity to come full circle, back to connection, and leave the conversation on a high note.

If there’s any documentation that needs to happen, discuss it with full transparency. Any “formal” assessment that comes from this conversation should be seen as a mere write-up of what you’ve already discussed — no surprises.

It’s 2020, and the performance review is broken. It’s time to reimagine our workplace, our workforce and work itself. It’s time to rewire our processes so they serve our people, instead of our people serving our processes.

The transformation to a fully human-centered digital workplace won’t happen overnight. However, making the leap from performance manager to performance C.O.A.C.H. is taking a bold step in the right direction.

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