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Providing employees feedback on their performance and opportunities to develop is one of a manager’s most important tasks. As important as it is, however, it can often get pushed down pretty far on the to-do list. Many leaders face a swarm of pressing deadlines; moreover, feedback conversations can be awkward. Even the preparation for such conversations can make managers feel stressed. It’s easy to fall back on the annual performance review to make sure at least one conversation happens. It’s no wonder many employees report getting no other feedback throughout the year.

But giving regular feedback on performance doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, there are a few relatively simple formats or templates to help guide the conversation and ensure the discussion is meaningful (and hopefully more frequent than once a year).

One of the best examples I’ve noticed is at Adobe, a company that became notable recently for ditching their performance appraisals and replacing them with informal “check-in” conversations. But, as we’ll see, their framework for a check-in conversation works well for any situation where relevant and valuable feedback is the goal.

For Adobe, a good check-in centers around three elements of discussion: expectations, feedback, and growth and development. When each of these areas have been discussed, then managers and subordinates know they’ve had a meaningful conversation.

  1. Expectations refer to the setting, tracking, and reviewing of clear objectives. In addition, expectations also mean that both parties agree on roles and responsibilities for the objective, and also are aligned in how success will be defined. For Adobe, employees were expected to begin the year with a simple, one-page document outlining the year’s objectives in writing. Regular check-ins became opportunities to monitor progress toward those goals and well as review how relevant they might still be in light of recent events. Regardless of what your own team may start the year understanding, taking the time to regularly review what the goals are, how close individuals are to achieving them, and whether or not those goals need to be changed is a vital step in making sure you arrive at the end of the year (or whatever cycle goals are measured by) with everyone in agreement about how successful a period it has been.
  1. Feedback refers to ongoing, reciprocal coaching on a regular basis. Feedback is the logical next step from a discussion about expectations. Once the goals are clear, and how close to meeting them is established, feedback is how employees learn to improve performance and more quickly achieve their goals. For Adobe, it was important to emphasis the reciprocal nature of feedback. Managers were providing performance feedback but also needed to be open to receiving feedback themselves. Specifically, feedback conversations provided answers to two questions: 1) “What does this person do well that makes them effective?” and 2) “What is one thing, looking forward, they could change or do more of that would make them more effective?”
  1. Growth and Development, the final element, refers to the growth in knowledge, skills, and abilities that would help employees perform better in their current role, but also to making sure that managers understood each of their employees’ long-term goals or career growth and worked to align those goals with current objectives and opportunities. Instead of a simple “year in review” approach, inclusion of growth and development as one element of a “Check-In” ensures that the conversation is centered on future development of employees … not just arriving at a score for the previous period. A vital part of making check-ins successful was not just the forward-looking nature, but also the frequency. If you’re checking-in regularly than it’s much easier for both managers and employees so see progress.

And that final piece might be the key to why check-ins work so well. Researchers Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School and Steve Kramer conducted a multi-year tracking study in which hundreds of knowledge workers were asked to keep a daily diary of activities, emotions, and motivation levels. When they analyzed the results, the pair found that progress was the most important motivator across the board. “On days when workers have the sense they’re making headway in their jobs, or when they receive support that helps them overcome obstacles, their emotions are most positive and their drive to succeed is at its peak,” they wrote of their findings. “On days when they feel they are spinning their wheels or encountering roadblocks to meaningful accomplishment, their moods and motivation are lowest.” Surprisingly, however, in a separate study of 600 managers, Amabile and Kramer found that managers tended to assume progress was the least potent motivator — citing things like recognition and incentives as stronger motivators.

Looking at the three-elements of a meaningful check-in, it’s easy to see why the system would be more motivating and performance enhancing than the norm. While most performance appraisal systems are backward looking, assigning what is essentially a grade to past performance and spending only minimal time focused on the future, this format centers around highlighting the progress made and the skills and abilities needed to make further progress. Both are mechanisms to provide feedback, but one appears far more motivating.

Perhaps most importantly, the beauty of a check-in conversation is that it doesn’t automatically mean abandoning all of the other mechanisms required by your organization. Well-intentioned managers can start holding check-ins with or without an overhaul to the performance management system being used. At its core, it’s a helpful tool for having a more meaningful conversation… and using it regularly might even make the annual performance review discussion more meaningful as well. If you’re looking for a way to provide more meaningful feedback and better develop the people on your team, talking about these three things (expectations, feedback, growth and development) is a great start.

Original Article