Reject Conventional Wisdom
Conventional wisdom says “Treat others as you would like to be treated” and yet this is the root cause of most performance problems and communication challenges in the workplace (not to mention personal relationships!).  In a massive study of managers who were leading high performance teams, researchers Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman discovered that great managers have very little in common.  However, they all reject conventional wisdom. 

They also have the discipline to implement and prioritise a routine, of meetings and conversations, despite the relentless day-to-day pressures of getting their actual work done.  This routine helps to keep them focused on unlocking individual performance even though there are many other business demands competing for their attention.

Every business has its own culture and great managers each have a unique style but in their book ‘First Break All The Rules’ the researchers discovered that hidden in all that diversity there were four characteristics common to them all.  These characteristics enable the great managers to know their people well enough to be able to treat them as they need to be treated – not as the manager would like to be treated.

1. Keep it simple
Great managers dislike complexity and I share that sentiment.  I have seen numerous bureaucratic appraisal processes including one at Forte Hotels that had 8 colour-coded sheets to investigate and explore every aspect of someone’s performance and development needs . . . and it never got used! 

Great managers keep it simple, simple enough to get results and simple enough to keep doing it, even when under significant time constraints due to other demands. They like to concentrate on the truly difficult work of what to say to each employee and how to say it – according to the employee’s needs.

2. Frequent interaction
Once a year is not enough!  I meet many businesses that complain about their appraisal process being stale, forced and inconsistent.  It is usually an annual chore that managers hate because it is a distraction, something they feel they are forced to ‘Do’ to their people – rather than ‘With’ them – just to satisfy the HR Department.  It is stale because after the appraisal meeting the documents get filed away for a year or get mislaid.  This is missing the whole point.  The paperwork is only, at best, a guide for a conversation – a conversation that should be regular and frequent. 

The keys to unlocking an employee’s performance lie in the details.  The details of what sort of recognition they need in order to feel valued, what really motivates them and what goals or aspirations they have.  Great managers are genuinely interested in their people and discovering their relationship needs, and what they want or don’t want from their work.  They are also keen to identify their talents and non-talents.  For more about the topic of ‘talent’ see the blog ‘Selecting for Talent’.

It was interesting to read that great managers explore these details a minimum of once a quarter and many do it more frequently than that.  I recommend that my clients conduct appraisals or at least review what was agreed every quarter, and some complain that this is too much.  My argument that frequency makes it far easier is backed up by the hard scientific evidence revealed in the research by Buckingham and Coffman.  They not only looked at how people who worked for great managers felt about their work, they were able to correlate highly positive responses with high performance against a number of critical business outcomes like productivity, profitability, retention and customer satisfaction.

If you are receiving and providing feedback every 3 months, key issues, successes and problems are always fresh in your mind and the mind of your people.  In fact, it focuses their mind because they know their performance will be reviewed again soon.  It also means you can raise the sensitive subject of underperformance and keep tabs on the required improvements. 

If you only get to these potentially awkward conversations once a year it can become a torrent of pent-up frustration with vaguely remembered instances that make the employee defensive because the examples were so long ago and their memory will probably differ from yours.  Frequency means you can provide recent examples and explore desired performance with specific measures that will be reviewed in the coming months.

This leads into the third characteristic of great managers.

3. Focus on the Future
While they will spend some time reviewing past performance to discover the person’s style and needs, great managers don’t dwell on recriminations or play the blame game.  They look at what is required to be successful, what needs to happen next, and what the desired behaviour and results are.  This is a more productive and creative conversation.  The latest research from the field of neuroscience also shows that it is also more satisfying because it raises energy rather than depleting it.

The questions great managers ask revolve around what will be accomplished in the next few months and what measures will be used.  It is also about discussing the most efficient and effective route to meeting the goals and standards, and how the manager can help.

4. Encourage self-evaluation
The fourth characteristic of the routine that great managers habitually exercise is that they invite their people to keep track of their own performance and learnings.  Most employees start off with an expectation that an appraisal is something that is ‘done to them’.  This is often based on previous experience where that is exactly what happened; they just needed to passively sit and await judgment to be passed (not that it made any difference to anything).  “Keep your head down and it will all just pass” is still a surprisingly common approach to appraisals for many employees.

The type of self-evaluation to encourage is not the sort where employees complete their own version of the appraisal form as a form of negotiation.  “I’ll score myself high and they’ll score me low so we’ll end up in the middle” or the alternative “I’ll score myself low so I’ll get some praise and be told I’m better than that”. 

Great managers are not interested in bargaining or playing games.  They want their people to write genuine goals and targets that they want to achieve and then report back on what went well and what got in the way.  The results are not designed to be evaluated or critiqued by the manager; the results are a mirror to reflect back the reality of the employee’s performance.  This is very powerful because the employee becomes empowered to recognise what is working and what is getting in the way of achieving their desired outcomes.  It also gives them the opportunity to reflect on what they have learned from the exercise.

Buckingham and Coffman went on to say that where there is a trusting relationship employees may want to share their reflections on success or failure but this is not the real point of the exercise.  The point is to encourage the employee to keep track of their own growth and learning.  The point is to become more self-aware. 

Consider this: “I am able to control only that of which I am aware.  That of which I am unaware controls me.  Awareness empowers me.”  How good are you at reflecting on your own progress, performance, growth and learning?  How aware are you about what you need to develop?

According To Their Needs . . .
The trouble with many entrepreneurs and business owners is that they treat their people as they would have liked to be treated when they were younger, or in a more junior position.  They act as if they are talking to themselves; “When I was in your position . . .” They treat people as they had wanted to be treated, and have expectations that are based on their own levels of drive, creativity, determination and ambition.  I’ve seen Managing Directors present a manager with a complex problem to sort out because they want to empower them, and then become shocked to find that the manager approaches the problem in a way that is totally different to what they would have done, especially if it is a problem that needs some creative thinking.   They are continuously surprised that other people don’t seem to have the same ‘get up and go’ or to see what is ‘so obvious’.   They forget just how different everyone really is. 

Unlocking performance is about recognising that everyone needs to be treated according to their own particular needs, not yours. 

Having the self-discipline of the great managers in Buckingham and Coffman’s research and adopting the four characteristics above will help you discover the keys to unlocking the performance of your people. But there is also a very powerful shortcut.

I consistently find that many clients are delighted and amazed when they discover what really motivates their people and how different they can be to their own motivational patterns.  This means they can quickly identify the best way to present things to their people so they ‘get it’ in a way that matches their needs.

To discover this shortcut for yourself just click here, or if you want to review your appraisal process or discuss any of the issues mentioned above, why not drop me a line by clicking here

Remember . . . Stay Curious!

With warm regards
David Klaasen

David Klaasen is director and owner of the niche HR consultancy, Inspired Working Ltd.  (
We now have a new website packed full of learning resources for managers for more info see
If you have a communication or performance problem and would like some objective advice drop him a line at
[email protected].

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