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Having great performance and development conversations: whose job is it anyway?

Great conversations with talented employees about their development are an essential component of successful performance management and can really help organisations drive business performance. But great conversations – open, honest, two-way – are difficult to get right. Too often the responsibility falls on line managers, most of whom will have some training in performance management but few of whom will have been trained specially in the difficult art of conversation.

So what’s the solution? Training will help – but don’t underestimate how hard it is to handle conversations about employee performance and development well. Doctors, for example, say they would rather tell a patient s/he is critically ill than have a performance and development conversation with a colleague.

PA Consulting Group believes that shifting the focus back onto HR is the answer. The HR function should take back its role as the provider of in-house pastoral care and work with line managers to ensure performance management conversations are handled in a way that makes talented individuals feel valued and encourages them to remain engaged.

Our report makes the case for giving HR a leading role in improving the quality of performance and development conversations, and suggests some practical ideas for making this happen.

Let HR set the standards for great conversations

HR should make sure managers have the skills they need to be effective, but not expect them to set the standards for what ‘great’ conversations should be. That’s HR’s role. The HR function’s focus should be on working with line managers to ensure they can make talented individuals feel valued and keep them engaged.

Introduce line managers to four essential skills

To become more effective, line managers need to understand the four elements that create a balanced conversation. This is one that acknowledges the natural tension that exists between the organisation and its talented employees. For its part, the organisation needs to know its key people and what talent is in the pipeline, and it must be clear about its current and future talent needs. For their part, employees need to know their own strengths, limitations and development needs, and be clear about their personal values and ambitions.

Help line managers and employees to have ‘supernatural’ conversations

A ‘supernatural conversation’ mirrors natural conversation more closely than a conventional structured and scripted career conversation, but produces supercharged results. This new type of performance management conversation doesn’t need to be perfect in all parts; the only ‘must-have’ is that employees should come out of the conversation feeling they are valued and believing that they matter.

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