Despite the current circumstances, we are all adapting to a new way of working — a way of working that will stick around for a while. As we all get used to working from home and getting that perfect work-life balance, it’s important that we still continue to have the conversations that we would have if we were in a physical office. Realignment conversations (also known as underperformance or poor performance conversations) should still be happening. Organizations need to recognise behaviour changes that will happen over this period from a psychological perspective and how that can impact employee performance.
When someone has been consistently underperforming over many weeks or months, a realignment conversation is often necessary to get them back on track. Although many managers will be wary about having potentially difficult conversation during a difficult time, regular performance conversations are still essential. This is because underperformance can also be impacted by changes in behaviour during this period.
Behaviour change timeframes
As we enter the third month of lockdown at varying levels of intensity in the UK, it may be helpful to look at behaviour change from a psychological perspective.
Whether it’s a good habit like exercise, or a bad habit like smoking, temporary behaviour change becomes permanent relatively quickly. Generally, it takes about three weeks for a temporary behaviour change to become a habit. If that habit persists for two to three months it becomes a permanent, entrenched behaviour that is far more difficult to change.
We can’t predict the future, and discussions about what the “new normal” will be in months or years can be fairly vague and aren’t always useful for performance management today. When we’re managing performance, look to behaviour over the past few weeks and months. If a performance issue has been happening for a few days it may be a blip; if the problem is persisting for weeks then it is starting to become a pattern. Two to three months of the same behaviour mean that it is likely to continue unless the circumstances or environment rapidly and fundamentally change again.
If there are performance issues that have been ongoing for months, those are unlikely to change substantially without intervention.
The good news is, behaviour can still change, but leave bad behaviour or underperformance uncorrected for more than a few months, and it will be far more difficult to change later.
Four Stages of Behaviour Change
1) Identify the problem
The first step of changing behaviour is to identify the problem. This should be directly linked to performance metrics, targets, or deliverables. The more clearly someone understands how they are being evaluated, the more straightforward it is for them to meet their objectives.
In conversation, give the employee the time and consideration to explain the problem in their own words. This serves two purposes. First, it shows how much insight they have into the situation; and second it lets them frame the issue and potential solutions from their perspective.
2) Explore the causes
Once the required performance levels have been defined and the gaps have been identified, then discuss the probable causes of the problem. For managers who worry about performance discussions during difficult times, here is a good opportunity to understand the person’s situation.
In some cases, performance might be suffering when an employee has insufficient equipment, technology or resources to get the job done. If an employee’s home is not equipped with the necessary devices, software, communication tools and fast, reliable internet connection that would directly impact their performance. In these cases, some investment might be needed from the company.
In other circumstances the employee will need to change their own behaviour to improve their performance. Planning and goal-setting are essential next steps (and will be discussed in greater detail in the next section).
There are some cases where there are temporarily barriers to an employee’s performance that cannot immediately change. A typical, recent example is when parents are temporarily required to homeschool their kids while also working from home. If that person has less time available for work and competing demands for their attention from young children at home that’s a clear identification of a challenge without an immediate solution.
In that case the discussion may centre around about what is a reasonable level of work that can be completed until the conditions are different, along with a clear longer-term plan for performance. Once the situation changes, and kids can safely return to schools, then a different level of performance will be expected.
3) Discuss the required changes
If the manager and employee agrees that behaviour change is needed and have identified some of the causes of problems, the next step should be setting performance goals.
The five As are an excellent framework. Goals should be:
- Agile: reviewed and changed to ensure they are relevant to fit the context
- Accountable: shared with collaborators whether that’s team members or other teams
- Aligned: whether it’s top-down, bottom-up and sideways
- Assessable: can be assessed but with no formulaic linkage to compensation
- Aspirational: a goal which is stretching but not so impossible to achieve that one gives up
It’s best to put these goals in writing so both the manager and employee understands and remembers the goals.
4) Consolidate improvements
What happens with a realignment conversation leads to improved performance? Often, the behaviour change process stops there. Job done, move onto the next crisis. Too often, the last stage of behaviour change is overlooked. Many managers forget that consolidating behaviour change is essential for maintaining that behaviour over the long term.
If there is a change in behaviour (a measurable improvement in performance) this should be a cause for celebration. What could have been a series of difficult conversations leading to an even more difficult retention decision has just become a success story. Two (or more people) have just worked together to improve performance. That’s a potentially virtuous cycle, an upward trajectory that should not be abandoned.
Learn more about realignment conversations:
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