15 minute read – Posted by – October 14, 2020

Conversational performance management: From 1-on-1s to lightweight reviews

Performance management is the business process everyone loves to hate.

There’s a revolution taking place among the most forward-thinking companies toward a trend of conversational performance management — forgoing the dreadful annual review in favor of a more agile and people-centric approach. 

Conventional wisdom and traditional management practices have incorrectly positioned performance management (or performance reviews) as a one-and-done annual process. It’s no surprise then that for most people, the very concept of performance management and reviews causes anxiety and dread. The old ways were designed to serve traditional management structures and focused on making it easy to administer.

This no longer works in the 21st century. Volatile, uncertain and complex business environments demand more agile people management practices. Employee experience is becoming an important driver of organizational performance. Performance management needs to adapt, building continuous feedback loops, to enable employees and managers to course-correct more often and to close the communication gap

Conversational performance management in action

Conversational performance management is simple with a bit of preparation and planning  to put it into action. It requires a continuous investment in the process by all stakeholders, with a focus on the needs and goals of your employees. 

It’s an ongoing chain of activities; for example for 1-on-1 meetings: 

  1. Build the habit of regular 1-on-1 conversations between you and your employees.
  2. Uncover the motivators & drivers for your employee.
  3. Build cadences so these conversations become the norm.

Why 1-on-1s are critical to conversational performance management

Managers and employees need a platform to align expectations and give clear feedback on how an employee can improve their performance. Having these check-ins regularly means that everyone keeps their focus and remains accountable to their top priorities. As they push toward their goals, they significantly improve the chances of goal achievement. 

Regular 1-on1s alert managers of potential roadblocks before they become emergencies, while continuously celebrating successes. They facilitate and streamline continuous conversation about expectations, address the actual performance, and create the ability to compare changes over time.

Perhaps most importantly of all, they offer a chance for everyone in the company to see that the company values their individual success. What’s more, they can offer a glimpse into how an individual’s contribution can directly impact the company’s mission and goals. 

Why are 1-on-1s important now?

With the sudden shift to remote work for so many of us earlier this year, companies have had to make a lot of adjustments. A policy of regular 1-on-1s can offer you a connection to your employees to account for some of the valuable in-person exchanges that were so crucial to your culture before the pandemic. 

With regular 1-on-1s, managers can ensure employees have what they need to succeed in a remote working environment. Managers are more able to stay on top of things, ensuring that their teams have support not only on the professional front, but also emotionally during the pandemic and remote work life. 

By capturing the essence of each conversation for posterity, management has the ability to support employees over the long term, by tracking and measuring performance and monitoring the trends over time. 

How to get started with continuous 1-on-1s

What does an effective 1-on-1 check-in meeting look like? 

Creating a system that managers follow with each interaction will streamline the process and help all stakeholders get value from the process: 

Step 1
Set the Expectations of the meeting 

Step 2
Create and customize templates for Manager/Employee – 1-on-1s

Step 3
Add some flavours — Mix and swap your questions and agenda, focusing on specific aspects at different times 

Step 4
Make it easy and concise — Use different question types to keep the focus and capture the right things

Step 5
Find the right cadences — Make meetings recurring on your calendars

Step 6
Nudge users and stay on top by putting things on auto-pilot — use a 1-on-1s program with a set schedule

Setting up high quality 1-on-1s

Start by creating a new template, or use an existing one, ahead of time to help guide the conversation. Co-create a meeting agenda with the employee — it will help provide even greater value to the conversation for the employee. 

Schedule weekly or bi-weekly conversations and mix up the theme or template of the meeting. For example, you can use tactical 1-on-1s as the default weekly or bi-weekly conversation, with development conversations every month or quarter. 

Depending on the theme and frequency of the meetings, schedule them for 30 minutes to an hour. 

Best practices for great 1-on-s

For all conversational performance management meetings follow these time-honoured best practices: 

  • Make sure to be on time — this is a priority!
  • Stick to the structure of the agenda to make sure to discuss what’s most important 
  • 90% of the conversation should come from the employee
  • Managers are there to guide the conversation and provide coaching
  • End with action items to complete before the next 1-on-1

Following these guidelines for every interaction between managers and employees will ensure that the process is never heady-handed or stress inducing. 

Conversation and goal-setting become the norm, leaving employees feeling the support of the team and the impact they have on the company’s outcomes. 

Specific considerations for remote 1-on-1s

Turn your cameras on if you can! The available non-verbal cues that you can pick up on using video can be crucial to understanding one another’s reactions.

Sometimes people are not feeling their best, so also be prepared to practice some understanding if they prefer to keep it off. 

There are fewer opportunities to interact when we are all working remotely. This 1-on1 time is critical for managers to connect with your employees to make sure that they’re getting their needs met. The current work environments are such that you’re going to be looking to fit more into these meetings than when they occur in the office. Take a bit of time before the meeting to check-in with the employee personally and minimize distractions that you can control (notifications, email) as best you can. 

“Making it Flavourful” — Themes for 1-on-1s

Checking in with employees often will help them grow within the company, but if meetings are happening weekly or biweekly, changing up the theme of your 1-on1s can help keep things fresh and still help you remain on mission. 

Choose meeting themes, for example: 

  • Company goals
  • Learning and personal growth
  • Feedback and coaching
  • Lightweight review
  • “Most important thing” —An ongoing touchpoint around a key goal or growth metric and working towards it. For example, an employee who wants to upskill and advance to a more senior position with a specific timeline. 

Having these changing themes will keep meetings from getting stale, and also give both managers and employees a chance to get value from the process. 

Ask yourself: How can we make these more delightful? Remember to stick to your usual progress check-ins and action plans, but the primary focus of each meeting can rotate as you go. 

“Make it easy and concise” with specific questions 

Use the appropriate question types for the most structured data-collection questions during your 1-on1s. When you want a number as an answer, one that you can review and analyse, use a number scale question. This is helpful when you’re capturing things like temperature, capacity, performance rating, and more.

For specific, close-ended questions, use multiple choice for capturing opinions, or multiple-selection options for discussions around themes. 

Giving employees an option to provide an open-ended response is also important. Classic, text-type question options allow for the recording of this kind of open-ended feedback. 

What to do after a 1-on-1

Capture what you can during the meeting and make sure to add any important notes within 24 hours, when the meeting is still fresh in your mind. Make sure the team member enters their notes as well. 

7Geese action tip: Make sure you finalize the 1-on-1, to generate the next recurring meeting on your calendars and maintain proper records of the interactions with each employee. 

Examples of continuous conversations and lightweight reviews

In tactical 1-on-1 meetings, focus on removing any existing roadblocks, using a minimum bi-weekly cadence. Specific goals are critical to support this (Are we on or off track?). 

Preparation helps to prioritise your roadblocks or bigger issues to solve, to give you the biggest impact with the time you have together. Reduce the time spent going through what’s been done to date — increase the quality of the connection with deeper dives into “the real issues” and feedback.

Allow more time to talk about the things you really need to discuss or ask for specific feedback. This is particularly key as we go through significant life events like COVID or anything personal. Make time to flag any specific concerns or practical needs (e.g., leave). 

Making time for growth or future-focused conversations

Development 1-on-1s are critical for your employee’s growth and to sustain their motivation. 

An employee may wish to know how they are progressing, or might be seeking advice on how to spend their development budget wisely. They may wish to take on bigger projects, or have new commitments in their work or personal life that require them to take a step back. 

Always make time for growth conversations and be vigilant in your goal to make these conversations more valuable to each individual employee. The value they receive in these conversations will help determine their commitment to their own work and go a long way toward helping them feel valued by the company. 

Conducting lightweight reviews in 1-on-1s 

Transition from traditional, once-a-year, heavy weight reviews to more continuous, real time, light-weight reviews as part your 1-on-1 check-in cadence. 

In order to course-correct any deviations from the flight plan, a regular touch-point between managers and employees can go a long way toward advancing potential performers to become top performers. 

Here’s a recommended cadence (Every 6 months) 

  • Mid-Quarter (6-8 weeks) ‘lightweight’ 1-on-1 reviews, 
  • End of Quarter (12 weeks) peer / 360 Feedback,
  • Mid year/End of Year “Heavy Weight” Reviews focussing on Learning and Growth or Appraisals. 

This provides employees and managers an average of six to eight learning and reflection cycles in a year, instead of just one in the traditional format. 

Tracking with your team members on cross-functional projects and assignments

No organizational  structure is perfect, particularly when it’s agile and ever-changing. Sometimes your most valuable people don’t fit neatly into your structure. These are your integrators, cross-functional hoppers; those that work “between the lines.”

1-on-1 conversations still need to happen with these individuals. Leaders must delineate who is responsible for which 1-on-1 in relation to that person (e.g. People Manager for growth conversations, functional manager for tactical conversations, etc.)

This also ensures accountability for individuals that are identified as *flight risks* or need extra support and motivation.

Learn more about using conversational performance management at your company

Want to learn more about how to create a culture of regular check-ins, lightweight reviews, and game-changing growth conversations? 

Read more about the 1-on-1s feature in 7Geese and request a demo to see how you can use 7Geese to create a more conversational approach to performance management.