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quentinmillington

Marble Brook

Adviser, Consultant, Executive Coach

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Why better questions mean better performance

When it comes to performance management, it’s time we swap ticking boxes with talking to a human being. By enabling fruitful conversations, we can secure better outcomes for individuals and our organisation.
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It’s harmful to view performance management as a process whereby we set goals, monitor people and dole out punishments or rewards. Our complex world calls for a proper dialogue about experiences and what might be done to better effect.

As I set out in my recent article, performance management is a means to an end: greater value for employees, customers, society and the planet, and the bottom line.

We get bogged down by processes because it is easy to do so: we set goals, evaluate people, assess results; we reward some and punish others. Managers are comfortable with these interventions because the main qualification is their formal authority.

Performance deserves a conversation

Performance warrants a conversation about what happened and how to secure fresh outcomes. Whilst it is quicker to tick a box than to talk with a human being, a little structure and good questions make the dialogue easier and more fruitful for both managers and team members.

Individual performance is typically seen in isolation (consider the scope of the typical ‘360 review’). But how we work depends on the environment, so for an informed view questions must probe wider contexts such as culture, leadership and resources.

One cannot ‘manage’ what one doesn’t know. The performance conversation should be designed to encourage a shared understanding for the manager, team member and other involved parties.

Performance warrants a conversation about what happened and how to secure fresh outcomes

Four stages of a good conversation

As a facilitator, I use a proven method to guide teams to look at experiences from various angles. The aim is to give everyone a say and let the group unearth the questions that matter. 

This structure can also be applied, with thought, to one-to-one exchanges. A good conversation considers four aspects of an experience:

  • Examine: What happens / happened?
  • Relate: How do you / we feel about what happened?
  • Interpret: What does this mean to you, us, or others?
  • Conclude: What action will you / shall we take?

Call this method ERIC if it helps. Run through these in order, to bring everyone’s minds (including your own) to a similar place. Resist the temptation to jump to ‘OK, so we just have to … set more goals!’

Let us consider Jeremy, who must run an effective project meeting to succeed in his role. He and his manager can craft questions from the four areas to reflect on Jeremy’s performance. They might also use the method to talk through the strengths and development needs of the project team.

1. Examine

Ask first about the facts. What actually happened? Consider specific cases: Who saw and heard what? What were the outcomes? This is a chance to learn what caught people’s attention. No one is objective and so, usually, the more views, the merrier the conversation.

People love to skip this examine part and say how they feel, what it means and what they think should be done. To navigate the complexity of performance, however, stick first with what happened.

Good questions might be:

  • What, Jeremy, stands out for you in our weekly meeting?
  • What questions did people ask last week?
  • How would you describe attendees’ body language?
  • How is the energy in the room?
  • What do you see when Jo runs the weekly meeting?

2. Relate

Take a look, next, at how people respond. These questions build on the evidence gathered in the first stage and allow the manager, the team member, and others, to express how they relate to and feel about an experience.

This is a chance to elicit subjective emotions. Do not deny the various ways in which a team member (or others) might relate to an experience: agreement is unnecessary.

Good questions might be:

  • What surprised you, Jeremy, in Friday’s meeting?
  • In how you ran the discussion, what made you proud?
  • What feelings caused you to raise your voice?
  • What did you feel when everyone agreed with the plan?
  • What was it like when Jo kept whispering to Karen?

These questions are challenging and so a safe space for everyone is essential. This calls for skill on the part of the manager. The effort is worthwhile, for the approach is more effective and less tiresome than ticking boxes.

Whilst it is quicker to tick a box than to talk with a human being, a little structure and good questions make the dialogue easier and more fruitful

3. Interpret

Building on the earlier examine and relate stages, the purpose of the third stage is to make sense of the experience and the feelings. What does the situation tell us? What can we learn? This is a chance to explore meaning and implications for an individual, the organisation and the future.

Good questions might be:

  • In chairing, what do you, Jeremy, do well / less well?
  • Jo left halfway through: what can you take from this?
  • How is the culture getting in your way?
  • What would make you more comfortable in the role?
  • What steps could you take to involve people?

The performance conversation should be designed to encourage a shared understanding for the manager, team member and other involved parties

4. Conclude

This final stage is about a decision or a plan of action. What are we going to do? It builds on the prior three stages to clarify a way forward that is grounded in reality and which accounts for individuals’ feelings and thoughts.

Where various people are involved in the performance conversation, this stage allows agreement on a solution.

Good questions might be:

  • What steps will you take to engage colleagues?
  • What training will you undertake this year?
  • What support can I, your manager, offer?
  • How will we know we have made a difference?
  • How committed are you, one to 10?

A better investment

Performance management is commonly a bureaucratic exercise in ticking boxes. Everyone benefits when the organisation invests time and money not in form filling and people monitoring, but in enabling fruitful conversations.

If you enjoyed this article, why not read: How to set clear performance expectations and unlock discretionary effort

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quentinmillington

Adviser, Consultant, Executive Coach

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