You and Your Direct Reports - Conversations Create Growth

Every conversation we have takes us nearer or further away from our goals. When it comes to the conversations we have with our direct reports, every conversation is an opportunity to grow (or hinder) someone’s performance or their engagement. How effective we are at creating growth through conversations varies across time and with different relationships. But conversations are a tool, and you can get quality ones that do a great job, and those that don’t. Here are the types of conversations that occur around performance and engagement.
At its worst, the manager doesn’t lead with the principles of true leadership. Conversations around growth and performance are completely cut. The direct report may grow despite the breakdown in this area, particularly if they are driven to self-manage. But this is a large risk for the manager and business to take; to cross your fingers and hope that the individual grows in performance and engagement despite no active involvement from the manager. The opportunities to check engagement and adjust as necessary are absent. The result is most likely to be a poor performing and disengaged team member, who starts to lose site of the relevance of their role to their own goals.
Clashes between a manager and a direct report are unfortunately relatively common. Often, this is around a mismatch between performance and expectation of performance (either way). There may be a lack of clarity over goals, or even just a clash of styles or experience. ‘Offline’ conversations that involve other people will start to occur. The harder but ‘real’ conversations become avoided and the hidden conversations that are less actionable, become more frequent.
Conversations between a manager and their team member can have elements of aggression or passive aggression as the subtext increases. It quickly impacts the quality of work/service to clients as emotions (anger, resentment, sadness or anxiety) take centre stage. Colleagues will withdraw, say less, say yes, start to fear more than think, or hide more than they say. Both individuals will start to label the issue within each other and the opportunity for growth shrinks.

The profits and time of others get sucked up by inefficient behaviour, wasted emotion and energy. A ripple effect finds its way out to other team members, other teams, the clients, and very quickly the brand. Sadly, sometimes these clashing conversations are so persevering that they become accepted by senior leaders, and the compromised team efficiency is tolerated.  
A manager and their direct report function relatively well but may miss ongoing opportunities to increase performance and engagement. Here are a few examples:

  • A manager may be aware of the issues that surround their team member’s development and growth. They may be aware of the goals, the steps to take, the blocks that might get in the way, the gaps or their strengths. However, they are not having conversations that enable growth. This might be because of a lack of confidence in their ability to do it well, or because the manager doesn’t see it as their place to do so.
  • Sometimes the manager feels there won’t be any shift in behaviour even if they have a conversation around performance or engagement.
  • A manager might not think that there is anything to say, no areas of need, and so they choose not to have growth conversations in a sort of ‘no news is good news’ way.

The manager is not trying to deepen their direct report’s knowledge, or support them in the hard work of growth, or build drive and aspiration for the individual. The manger stops being ‘together’ on the direct report’s journey and she/he will have no idea whether they are drifting or tethered to each others goals until it is too late. Add in any inhibitions that the direct report has to converse around growth, authentic feelings or goals, and opportunities slip by unnoticed.

The recent, but widely adopted habit of performance reviews are a way of scheduling growth conversations to ensure that they happen. While the scheduling does mean they occur, the opportunities for growth are reduced as people start to rely on the system and become deskilled at having conversations. This reduces our opportunity to grow and leaves our performance and engagement vulnerable.
When managers and their team are skilled in growth conversations, they unsurprisingly welcome conversations about growth. Both individuals use conversations as an opportunity to check in with each other about needs, desire and what each of them need to progress. There is a level of authentic communication that brings trust, real tracking of performance and mentoring around strategies and ways to reach goals. The direct report is empowered, and has a strong sense of purpose through achievement. The manager is truly leading, stretching their own leadership skills and creating a succession plan for their own future goals. Sound nice? 
Expecting that growth in performance will happen because of tenure, or that the use of carrots, sticks and performance reviews is enough to keep people focused on improvement, is a risk most companies cannot afford to take. How can you boost performance and engagement smartly just through better conversations? 


Amy is an expert in communication for influence. Join Silverlinings to get tips and tools for growth and engagement at work.Click for details of programs and download free offers.