Recently, we invited behavioural change guru Sam Netherwood of Mudano to join our own Natasha Wallace for a coaching conversation (disguised as a webinar). Sam is an old friend of Clear Review and was part of the team that implemented Clear Review at AQA. Natasha is our Chief Consciousness Officer and, among other things, coaches everyone at Clear Review and makes sure we balance performance with wellbeing.
One of the key takeouts from our recent UK Performance Management Report was a capability and availability gap. HR leaders expressed concerns about team managers having the time — and the skills — to hold quality conversations with their team members. There’s a big question around the skill gap — we know, for example, that 80% of organisations in our research offered training to managers to have these coaching conversations — but, for the purposes of this piece, we’ll focus on availability.
When we look at an employee who’s not growing and developing in the right way (in other words, to suit the aspirations of the team and the wider business) we tend to home in on the things they can do to correct this. We might send them on a course. We might even set a Personal Development Plan with a view to giving them targets they need to hit to continue in their role. We look at the individual and try to figure out ways that the individual can accommodate the needs of the team.
The challenge with this, as Sam points out in the webinar, is that organisations are complex systems. And it’s difficult to improve the performance of a system by tinkering with the individual parts. Every element interacts with other elements, forming a dependent set of conditions and working parts. Changing one may give you unforeseen effects in another.
Now consider this analogy: if a gardener plants and nurtures a seed and the seed dies, he or she doesn’t blame the seed for not growing. The first thing they look to is the environment. Just as it is with our complex organisation or system, a garden is a series of co-dependent factors. Soil. Water. Sunshine. And so on.
Now let’s go back to our original point. If you want your managers to be better coaches — better managers, in fact, who are able to take the time and expend the effort to make their people genuinely better and more effective — then you need to ask whether the system is geared to make that happen. Because as we all know anecdotally — and as our research bears out — managers spend the vast majority of their time being subject experts. This expertise in their area has got them to where they are, but after a certain point it becomes a limiting factor. Rather than coaching and guiding their teams to fill the gap that they’ve left, they continue to half-fill the gap themselves. Much of their time is spent “marking” other people’s work; pointing out errors; immersing themselves in the detail. The best estimate, taken from a number of studies in this area, is that most managers spend no more than 15% of their time (and usually much less than that) actually managing people. And the system supports them in this. Very rarely is a managerial role geared towards improving the effectiveness and experience of the people who work for them.
Managers need to be incentivised to manage. It needs to become a requirement of their role: something that they are encouraged to do and measured on. Training can be helpful here, but even the right training isn’t always delivered in the right way. Take coaching conversations and future-focussed feedback: we take people out of their daily working lives and send them off to do a course in how to do these things more effectively, then we drop them back in their same old environment and ask them to apply what they’ve learned. But we don’t often stop to ask whether the conditions are right for them to act on this new knowledge.
What does that mean? It could mean giving people room to fail, for example: offering people with the right potential enough autonomy to learn and develop whilst being aware that they may make a mess of the project. Failure can be a valuable learning tool. But creating “safe-to-fail” conditions takes time and planning: resources that are always in short supply.
There’s a huge amount of wisdom in this webinar, including examples from Sam’s own experience in behavioural change, all supplemented by Natasha’s vast experience promoting psychological safety and sustainable high performance.
You can listen to the full webinar here.
You can download our latest research, the UK Performance Management Report 2019, here.