What does a great developmental conversation look like between line manager and direct report?

by Prof David Clutterbuck

What does a great developmental conversation look like between line manager and direct report?

The weight of evidence in recent years with regard to traditional performance appraisal and developmental conversation between line managers and direct reports presents a clear picture – not only do they not motivate higher performance, but they often reduce motivation and performance.

To reshape these conversations to make them positive and useful, we can go back to the question: What are they intended to achieve? To which the answer is:

  • To help both the manager and the direct report to understand how and what the direct report is contributing and compare this with a standard of performance both see as appropriate and achievable
  • To support the direct report in self-motivating (note not for the line manager to motivate them) to work closer to their potential
  • To identify learning needs
  • To explore the systems affecting the direct report and how these can be adjusted, if required, to enhance their performance and continued growth (including how the manager is enabling or obstructing the direct report’s performance).

To achieve these outcomes, the process must be jointly owned, so the direct report doesn’t feel it is being done to them. It also needs to balance:

  • Individual contribution versus contribution to collective contribution
  • Task delivery versus learning acquisition (both the individual and the team need to be paying attention simultaneously to performance now and creating capability for future performance).

Here is a simple framework – based on global good practice — for getting back to the real purpose of these conversations:

  1. Every quarter, each employee gathers feedback from several peers they select, whose opinion they value. (Although people may initially choose only people they think have a good opinion of them, most gradually gain the confidence to select a more balanced set of feedback-givers.) They ask for very simple feedback:
    1. What have you observed in my work and behaviour that has contributed to the team task?
    2. What would you like me to do more of or differently?
    3. What suggestions would you like to make, if any, about where I might focus my performance and learning goals?
  2. They reflect on this feedback and draw their own conclusions, drafting a brief report, with the headings:
    1. What’s gone well
    2. What hasn’t gone as planned
    3. What I’ve learned
    4. How I am going to use that knowledge to improve my task performance and learning in the next three months
    5. Targets I want to achieve – both task performance and learning goals
    6. How I will measure my progress towards them
    7. What support I need from my manager and others
  3. The direct report shares this report with their manager. It is at the employee’s discretion whether to share the full feedback from peers.
  4. The manager and the direct report review the report together, with the manager offering his or her own observations. Together they add to the report comments on:
    1. How genuinely motivated are you by these goals?
    2. What will it look like to meet these goals?
    3. What would it look like to exceed them?
    4. How will achieve these goals contribute to the collective Team Development Plan?
    5. What support will the manager commit to?
    6. What are the potential derailers and how will the manager and the direct report collaborate to prevent these occurring?
  5. Each month in-between, the manager and direct report have a brief check-in, to identify actual or potential derailers
  6. Once a year, the team as a whole reviews the process with the manager, based on the questions:
    1. Is it delivering what was intended?
    2. How can we make it even more open and effective?