Performance conversations are extremely important in your job as a manager. A fundamental part of your role is giving feedback to improve your team's effectiveness as well as helping each member develop their skills and career. In this post and podcast we're looking at the four broad performance categories: Underperformers, Average to good performers, High performers and High potential and the things you need to be mindful of when you’re discussing with your team members where they sit on the scale. We’ve developed a simple template to make it easier for you too and it can be used in several different and very useful ways, some of which we discuss below.
The first thing to know about performance ratings and conversations is that it’s crucial to be as clear and definitive as possible so you can all be on the same page. Using consistent criteria that have been agreed upon is key. In this way, when you offer feedback, it's not your opinion but a measurement on a scale upon which you and your team members have reached consensus. The template is designed to help you solidify this.
We’ve seen our template used by senior leaders engaged in talent management conversations and workshops. They’ve discreetly written down the names of those they manage and have then been able to discuss matters amongst themselves with commonality around each performance definition.
When discussing performance, include things like skills, achievements and strengths and to what degree each person is performing as per expectations. If they're under-performing, include why and in which areas. Add evidence and explain what you see that leads you to this conclusion. It may take some thought and reflection to be able to define and articulate what you mean but you must be clear about what behaviour, characteristic, thinking style, etc. you’re describing as being underperforming. Look at your team every six months and check whether team members have continued at the same level or, if they’ve dropped off, ask yourself how and why that may be.
Use the template in your one-on-one meetings to add measurement to your observations and feedback. Be careful to include behaviours, characteristics and achievements before you have that discussion. If necessary, have the team member repeat the observations back to you in their own words so you can be sure you’re both on the same page so to speak.
Team-building isn't just about making towers of spaghetti sticks. Using the template is a great way to build team capability and discussion around performance. Write the four categories on a board and ask your team to describe what each performance category looks like. In this way, it’s not just you the manager being subjective about definitions. You’ll arrive at a consensus as a team, and this will set you up for ongoing performance discussions.
If there’s a high enough level of trust, you could even take it to the next level and ask, “As your manager, if I was underperforming, what would that look like? Or if I was a solid, high-performing manager, what would you say?” Be prepared for some interesting answers!
With an underperformer, define where underperformance is happening by asking yourself questions such as:
Is it their behaviours or what they're delivering that’s under-performing?
Is it in the timing or the quality of their work?
Is it a problem with their communication skills or delivery?
Either you or you and your team get to decide what underperformance looks like. Remember, in one team or organisation, underperformance could be good, while in another team, the same performance could be seen as average.
In a conversation with someone who’s underperforming, you might find they don’t have a great level of awareness. Asking them to put themselves in one of the four categories is most likely to prompt the ‘average’ response. Be gentle, be respectful, don't have a script but do have a plan. For example, you could use their response as a springboard and say, "Oh, that's interesting. Why do you say that? What are some of the things you're doing that would put you into that category?" Then, you can say, "Now it's my turn. Well, I would put you into underperformance and the reason being is there are these things that I've observed..." Then, start to dialogue.
These are the solid performers who do a good job but not a great one. They come in, do their work, don't light up the sky, but they keep things ticking over. They might be down at the lower end of average or at the top end where they’re good but not quite at high-performance level. Remember, it's all about definition. You might consider using a scale from one to five, where five is at the top end and one is at the lower end of the scale. You want help shift those ones up to fives.
And, remembering the 80/20 rule, be mindful of where you're putting your energy, time and attention. Don’t labour over minor issues. Focus instead on those that are likely to yield a result if they are fixed.
This conversation will definitely be different. One thing that we at People Leaders really drive home is that you must be careful not to load up your high performers with all the work. We find that because they’re high performing and don’t cause you any problems or take up lots of your time, you know they're a steady, reliable safe set of hands. And so, because we know they're going to do a really good job, we tend to load them.
Some high performers want to be loaded up since their aim is to become competent in their field and step up to the next rung. But it’s important to have the conversation and ask, "Am I hitting the mark in terms of the level of work and how much I'm expecting of you?" And of course, give them the feedback around why you consider them a high performer and what you appreciate about their performance. Don't take it for granted.
The conversation with a high performer should be around skill, achievement, ability and next steps. What role are they looking towards? What can you groom them for? In every conversation, check-in with them about whether they have enough juicy projects to keep them satisfied. Let them know that you’re on the lookout on their behalf.
There will be high performers who are career-oriented but there are also those who are extremely competent but want to stay where they are for now. Everyone’s different and you only know who’s who when you ask the questions.
Firstly, let’s be clear about the difference between a high potential and a high performer. They may be new to the role or new to the organisation, but a high-potential person is someone who may not be good in their role right now, yet you can see they have the potential to achieve greater things in their career. This category is about attitude, skill, capability and, importantly, the questions they ask. Again, it’s important to have clearly articulated what ‘high potential’ looks like in your organisation.
So, the key is to start by being clear and agreeing what each category of performance looks like upfront, because this is where these conversations can come unstuck. Creating a definition is something of an art and a science - there is some fluidity to it, but there’s also logical planning and you really need to do the work. However, we assure you, you’ll be paid back in spades. It’s so rewarding when you get it right.
4 Types of Performance Conversations for Leaders and Managers