The Five Conversations Framework
I interviewed Ms Anne Tocker from WattsNext about her experiences with the Five Conversations Framework. Here below are the transcripts of that interview that are included in The End of the Performance Review.
We are an HR consulting company; so we work for SMEs who have no or limited internal HR support. We do anything from project work and ad hoc support where managers just need some help and call and ask: ‘What do I do?’ right through to up to four-year engagements where we create HR frameworks for them to implement in their businesses. And make sure they are going to do what they say they are going to do. If we just give them the framework, it falls by the wayside pretty quickly. We also have a recruitment division that supports our clients by managing the entire recruitment process. Unlike other consultants, we have a vested interest in the recruitment outcome as our HR team are the ones who have to fix any issues with new employees.
Sue-Ellen Watts started the business; hence the name Watts Next. She actually started it after the birth of her first son, when he was in day care. She has grown the business to ten employees over the last five years and has long-term plans for international growth.
Both my mother and sister work in HR. My mother is a management consultant primarily working in HR and has been doing this for many, many years. And my sister started working for her a few years ago, so I have grown up in HR. I went to the University of Otago in New Zealand and studied HR and then from there traveled round the world working in HR. I worked for a major public works agency in New Zealand and their HR team. And then for the public health system in Canada working in HR as well. I have been working for Watts Next since moving to Australia in 2011. So I have had a bit of exposure to HR in several different cultures and types of industries.
The thing that attracts me to HR is primarily people. I like working with people and I originally wanted to be a teacher because I thought it would be a great opportunity to teach people to learn and grow. I feel the same way about managers in organizations and for that reason I wanted to assist managers to do their job more effectively so that their employees could learn and grow. When you had a great teacher, it made such a big difference. The same is true in work: if you have a fantastic manager, then you get good results from employees.
The problem is that we often get trained in a technical area such as accounting but then we become a manager of accountants and nobody teaches how to do this. So that’s what I am particularly interested in as a specialty of HR. There are parts that are difficult, of course, such as terminating contracts, but it comes with the job.
For the last two years I’ve worked with a large number and range of clients implementing the Five Conversations Framework. For example, one of the first companies I implemented the framework with was a disability services employer and they took it on and really benefited from it. I have also implemented the framework in firms providing professional services such as financial planning. It has been put into practice at a law firm, a manufacturing company, and a not-for-profit organization as well as several others. And the sizes of those businesses range from 8 through 80 people.
When we talk to clients about performance reviews, we offer them a number of different options and ask them what they would like to achieve with their performance management system. Nine times out of ten they choose the Five Conversations Framework because it is something they have never seen before; it is completely new to them. Many of them contact us and indicate that their standard performance review system is not working and they want to try other options.
I have found that they are instantly interested in this new approach. What employers and managers like about it amongst other things is the opportunity to get closer to their employees─to break down the ‘them and us’ approach, if you like.
This approach removes some of the pitfalls of the traditional employee appraisal, such as fear. The fact is that traditional performance reviews happen once or twice a year; this means, from a manager’s perspective, that the pressure is on to get it right, and the truth is that it is often directly or indirectly linked with salaries and bonuses. I think this adds to the fear and tension. Goals are often set and not monitored until 6 to 12 months later. So they tend to lose their value. And so the standard approach, I have found, makes a big imposition on the business by adding a complex process that does not achieve any real value.
The difference with the five conversations is that it is a regular, ongoing dialogue, not a once- or twice-a-year situation. Progress is easier to track with the five conversations. Clients find this approach attractive because either their traditional system was not working or they liked the freshness of this approach. Many of my clients were just going through the motions of the traditional approach; it was just a process that had to be completed as part of the business, not one targeted to maximize employee performance and engagement.
We provide a large amount of training for managers depending on what the clients want. In fact we never put in place the Five Conversations Framework without some training for managers.
The other important thing we do is conduct a survey of employees to gauge their attitude toward the performance review process that is currently in place in the organization. Most of the feedback we get is pretty negative about the traditional system and it does provide us with a platform from which to introduce this new approach.
And so by interviewing those employees, we can take that information and use it to address a number of issues in the management training. For example, if the employees tell us there is no follow-up on matters discussed in the appraisal, we highlight this in the management workshop. We find that two hours is enough time to allow the managers to familiarize themselves with this new approach. So the important thing here is to link the employees’ feedback to how the five conversations will address their criticism.
We start off highlighting the shortcomings of the traditional appraisal system and demonstrate how the five conversations address this ineffectiveness. Then we run through each of the five conversations, talking about the focus of the conversation and the questions that should be asked.
One of the other things we push strongly in the training is that this approach is about getting ‘on the same page’ as your employees and spending time talking to your team.
For example, in the Learning and Development conversation some employees could indicate that they don’t want or need any training because they may be at the end of their careers and don’t see the point. The fact that this is out in the open and is discussed is a good thing in my opinion. The manager and the employee are on the same page. At least they have had that conversation. Because if managers don’t have the conversation, they don’t know and then they can make incorrect negative assumptions about the employee.
After this initial training we follow up with the managers to see how they got on and whether they have any questions or concerns. This is more of a coaching process.
One of the other things that I have done for a client is sat in on some of the conversations, although I wouldn’t recommend doing this all the time. But for those managers who lack the confidence or skills to initiate these conversations it can be a help to prompt them. If they’ve never run a performance review of any type before, it can be quite nerve-racking as well. And at the end of the conversation I debrief with the manager or supervisor and give them some tips from my observations of how the conversation went.
For example: ‘It might have gone better if you had asked more questions and done less talking.’
Once all the managers have completed their conversation on a particular topic, they hand me their completed forms and I can then put in place a plan for the whole organization, whether it is the results of the Climate Review or a learning and development plan. This also helps to make the managers accountable for following through on their commitments to their staff.
The difficult thing sometimes is changing people’s viewpoint. It can be a challenge. It’s because the process is different; changing their ideas about what a performance review is and why we do them is the challenge. For instance, explaining to people that it’s not about ticking a box and that it is not supposed to be a one-way monologue is important.
I have found that a lot of people are used to the idea that ‘once in a blue moon’ the manager comes in and tells the employee how they are doing and then leaves. And the employee doesn’t get a decent say in the whole review. As with any process, there can be a challenge in getting people to follow through and implement it.
I have found that managers have really enjoyed receiving feedback from employees. They haven’t been used to two-way communication in the past. They haven’t often asked employees what they think and for that reason they are quite surprised about some of the answers, particularly in the Climate Review, which is the first of the five conversations. Managers generally love this new approach.
For instance, sometimes these initial conversations will go on longer than expected because there is so much to talk about and this kind of conversation has not necessarily been held in the past. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s a good thing.
From employees, a lot of the feedback I get is that they think it’s great to be able to have the time with their managers. It’s quality, one-on-one time to discuss some of the issues that don’t normally get discussed. They like the fact that their managers have allocated time to listen to them.
A lot of the feedback I get initially from the managers when I introduce this approach is of the type: ‘I didn’t think it was going to work and the new approach has changed my mind.’ At the outset managers have said to me: ‘It’s too time consuming; I’m not sure I want to do this; it seems too “wishy-washy”’ and that kind of thing.
One of my most difficult clients said to me in May last year that there was a lot of resistance to this new approach and then when we met with them early this year they had completely changed their mind and told us that they loved the process.
I find it’s just a matter of getting them to do it; once they have done it, they see the value in it. Sometimes getting that change of thinking can be a bit of a challenge. But overall the feedback has been very good.
The most confronting conversation is the Opportunities for Growth. It is most like a traditional performance review and the conversation where shortcomings are discussed. But if managers don’t discuss people’s opportunities for growth, then how do employees know what is expected of them? It has to be done as part of any review system. If employees don’t know whether they are meeting their manager’s expectations, then how will they know whether they need to lift their game? Or the employee might assume they are doing a good job and not perform as well as they could.
Managers in my experience get just as anxious about this conversation as employees. But then─as with every one of the other four conversations─once they get started, they are fine; it wasn’t as bad as they initially thought. And if the manager is doing a good job and pointing out areas for improvement regularly, there shouldn’t be any surprises. If an employee is surprised by the feedback in the conversation, then the manager is not communicating honestly enough with their team. If they are giving regular feedback, then the outcomes of this conversation are more to do with what the organization can do to help the employee to improve in certain areas.
We use the information from the climate review to track progress; to see how issues like job satisfaction and morale are going. Employers these days are keen to keep their star performers, and morale and job satisfaction are very important with regard to minimizing staff turnover. The rating system works well in this regard.
For example, last week we had an employee who didn’t want to put a number on his job satisfaction. But when we asked and the employee gave it a 4, that allowed his manager to really understand where he was at. That was important because the rating opened up something that probably wouldn’t have been discussed and it led to some tangible actions.
So I think having some numbers in the conversations is useful to open up sensitive issues that mostly don’t get discussed. And those numbers can help us track our progress, or otherwise. A rating of 4 out of 10 tells me so much about what that employee thinks and opens up the reasoning behind the rating. It works beautifully. I call it the temperature gauge.
It also provides a really good opportunity to get all the managers together to discuss issues connected with communication, morale, and job satisfaction and what they can do to improve them. They are important indicators in an organization. The Climate Review is a great conversation to start with because it is not confrontational and it helps to get employees used to the process of these conversations.
As far as the Innovation and Continuous Improvement conversation is concerned, it is also really valuable in the sense that employees feel they are being listened to; they are not just a number. Employees, in my experience, appreciate it if they are genuinely asked for ways and means of improving work practices and the organization as a whole.
The two components that I think are particularly useful are firstly, recognizing the things that employees are doing to make a difference. Acknowledgement is very important and this conversation opens up the opportunity for the manager to recognize those contributions when they happen and I think that is a good thing in terms of building morale. Sometimes employees find it hard to express ways and means of improving things at work. But this often gives their manager the opportunity to say, ‘Well, you have done this or that and I appreciate that and you should be proud of that contribution,’ which is fantastic. It is an automatic recognition for the employee from their manager. And as we all know, recognition is something that we don’t give enough of. The second component of this conversation which is useful is that it encourages the employee to come up with new ideas at the next Innovation and Continuous Improvement conversation, if not before.
One of the clients I have been working with is in manufacturing. One of the women on the production floor said, ‘I don’t do anything. I just come in and do my job and leave at the end of the shift.’ The manager was then able to identify in this conversation all the things she had done to improve processes in her own way. She is a quiet, shy lady. I am sure that was huge for her to hear from her boss and it encouraged her to do more in terms of being efficient and effective.
In my own conversations with Sue-Ellen, my manager, we have been able, using my own experience, to put processes in place to improve how we do things around the office, which has been really productive.
The challenges that I see out there when I implement the Five Conversations Framework for clients have been in finding the right internal administrative support and in sticking to a schedule and making it happen, which are critical challenges. Another challenge is for managers to block out time in their busy calendars to have these conversations with their staff. HR has an important administrative role in this regard to make sure that the process it being adhered to and that other priorities don’t get in the way, as managers often get distracted by the operational requirements of their role.
I think the other test is the fear that goes with doing something completely new. The fear of the unknown, if you like. But as I said earlier, after they have started the process, the feedback is overwhelmingly positive.
I remember a partner in a law firm who conducted the Climate Review conversation with one of his staff. Halfway through the conversation the employee burst into tears and completely broke down. She had a lot of issues in her personal life which were adversely affecting her work and this meant that she wasn’t meeting the expectations of her manager. And she was feeling really upset about it. When I caught up with her a couple of weeks later just to see how she was, she was 100 per cent better. A complete turnaround! She said to me: ‘If nobody had asked these questions, I wouldn’t have said anything.’ The fact that her manager asked how she was feeling and whether everything was okay meant she could get her concerns off her chest, be honest with him about what was happening, and be able to move on from it. Her manager eased her workload to help her and that one conversation improved the working relationship between her and her manager tenfold. I have already seen her improve her work standards as a result.
I remember another conversation where the employee was very aggressive and difficult to deal with prior to the Climate Review conversation. She had had several performance management meetings prior to that, which made things worse. But because the Climate Review focuses on how someone is feeling, it is less confrontational. The upshot was she was able to explain to her manager that she had some serious psychological issues for which she was receiving treatment. Her attitude after that meeting completely changed as a result of her being comfortable to disclose this information. She is now back to being a high-performing senior employee in the business. So those two conversations alone made an incredible difference in that workplace. And they would not have happened if the Five Conversations Framework had not been put in place.
I think the Five Conversations Framework is a very good process and it has a huge amount of value for the organizations that commit to taking it on.
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