How do you surprise your team members during their next review?

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We are slowly heading to the end of the year. If you are working in a traditional corporate environment, you are probably preparing for the yearly reviews. Do not worry 😉 I am not going to discuss the value of mere yearly reviews in this blog. As a hardworking teamlead or manager, you are probably going to plan the yearly reviews, prepare them, and hopefully you will be looking back at 2015 in its entirety and not only the last months. You take your time to prepare, you write down people’s strengths, weaknesses, accomplishments and the improvements your team members made and you think about their future goals and development. Now the review meeting is there, and the first question you ask your team member is “how are you doing” and they respond “er… good”, “OK, why good?”, “Just good, you know… good”. Do you recognize this?

As a manager, you would love to hear the honest opinions of your team members: how they feel about their current role and performance, their team, the organization, their future, etc. You did ask them explicitly to prepare the review in advance, you perhaps even supplied a template to help them start thinking about it, but in the end some people just did not find the time, for whatever good reason, and it is again you who does most of the talking…

Not having a proper dialogue and people not preparing for a dialogue made me realize that I needed to trigger team members to start talking in a better way. But when I would ask the same questions every year it would become boring. I would probably get the same answers every year, and the year after we would probably already skip the questions.

I googled around and read several blogs about the “48 questions you should ask during the mid-year review” and “52 things not to ask during an appraisal meeting” but that didn’t really help me. But after reading things like “What do you think went well this year?” and “What are your goals for the next six months/year?” I almost gave up, this would not help me. I then stumbled on the 12 questions from Gallup.

That year I chose to use the 12 questions from Gallup to get the discussion going during the review. The Gallup questions are:

  1. I know what is expected of me at work.
  2. I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
  3. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
  4. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
  5. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
  6. There is someone at work who encourages my development.
  7. At work, my opinions seem to count.
  8. The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
  9. My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.
  10. I have a best friend at work.
  11. In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.
  12. This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

Good stuff I thought, so instead of asking a team member how they were doing as my first question, I asked: “Do you know what is expected at work?” Of course the team member started by saying “er…” :), but then they started talking. It really helped me to have a good discussion with the people in the team. I believe, however, that you can use these questions just only once, or perhaps once every couple of years. You need to keep the review interesting, different and challenging. You should change the format every time and surprise the team members with your questions in positive ways.

So… we used the 12 Gallup Questions… and it went well, and we even made some small changes in the organization because of things we learnt, but what could we use next? I again read again some blogs and books, and skipped again the ones with questions like “Name one thing we can do to make our meetings more efficient?”

In September 2013, I received a mail from Jurgen Appelo. In this mail, he describes the Improvement Dialogue. One-on-ones, and pair working are three examples of people helping employees and colleagues learn how to do better work. By using inquisitive statements, instead of traditional coaching questions, you can catalyze a person’s performance with principles taken from Appreciative Inquiry, Powerful Questions, and Improvisational Theatre. In the workout is a list of “inquisitive statements” to be used by coaches and managers in their coaching sessions and one-on-ones. The statements were inspired by various useful sources offering questions for coaches and managers. The questions were turned into statements because this allows you to reduce the influence of the observer. When you ask questions, your way of asking can determine the direction of the answer, and thus it is best to have the coach and manager sometimes not ask questions. Reflective statements can be picked randomly from the list by participants, which enables them to broaden their inquiry and cover a wide area of interesting topics. We should have faith in the uncertainty of the session’s conversational flow, trusting that the most inspiring insights will emerge from improvisation rather than interrogation.

There are four areas of inquisitive statements in the list: personal, relational, organizational, and environmental. This makes it easy for you to skip an area when it is not applicable, and to adjust the scope of the inquiry to what is realistic and actionable. All statements are designed to be powerful by the implicit use of why, how, what and when (hidden within the statements), which invites deeper discussions, and many of them help people to bring their underlying assumptions to the surface.

I discussed this approach with some peer managers and we decided it was interesting approach and decided to give it a try.

Jurgen describes in total 160 questions, divided in four areas: personal, relational, organizational, and environmental. The first thing I did was create cards holding the questions. To save you some time, you can download the cards over here. Print them and ask your kids, partner or someone else to cut them in small cards.

In short it works like this:

  • Pull a card from the pile, and ask your team member to complete the sentence. His first word will be of course: “Er…” 😉
  • You always need to agree with his statement (that is part of the game) and also need to make suggestions to help bring the dialogue forward.
  • Next, your team member needs to respond (positively) as well and needs to contribute to the dialog.
  • You keep doing this until you find one or more actionable items for you or yourself.
  • When you both feel you found a good action or good insight, you pick another card from the pile and start again.

By building on top of each other’s contributions, respecting what others have said before, and by contributing with new statements in an affirmative way, the participants in these dialogues are most likely to bring out the best in everyone.
Simple isn’t? Next step is to plan the reviews with your team members. Wait… hold your horses…! Don’t use them yet in a meeting with your team members. I would advise you first to use the cards in a talk with a peer manager.

It sounds simple but I discovered you need to use it a few times before you really get the hang of it. You need to get familiar with the game. Practice in getting the dialogue going. Did you ever do a workshop improvisational theater? Did you ever experience improvisational theatre? It definitely is not easy, it needs practice.

OK, so familiarized yourself with the game, and you practiced, you have the cards all nicely cut out, what’s next? Yep, plan the review meetings with your team members. However, plan them wisely. Look at your team, who do you feel is most willing to try out new things and who is always against change or experiments? You could plan the first review and start with the most challenging team member. Normally, I always advice people to start with the most difficult tasks. In this case… not, don’t do it. Imagine you start with the most challenging team member and the improvement dialogue just doesn’t work, he or she is totally frustrated about this stupid game, and you wonder on your ride bike home why the hell did you try out this game, what were you thinking? That is not very motivating to use it again in the next review, is it? Start easy, I don’t think it is necessary to plan the most challenging review as last, but definitely not as your first. Gain some confidence before you use the Improvement Dialogue with your more challenging team members.

One of the pitfalls is not realizing you are already experimenting and thinking about the improvement dialogue for weeks or maybe even months. Your team member most certainly is not! Send some information about the concept to your team members before the review, give them time to read about it. In the review meeting, take some time to explain the concept and step through the rules again. To be sure, assume that the person of front of you didn’t read the info you sent them :). After explaining the concept play an example card and coach your team member on the fly to get things going. What you could do, we realized this too late, is record a session you had with a peer manager and show it at the start of the review. Just as an example. Also make sure you explain there is no good or bad answer, as long as you stick to the rules of the game.

At one moment during the dialogue your team member makes a statement or proposes something and you totally disagree. Hold your breath and stay silent! Yes I know you are probably on that chair because you always speak out your opinion. Not in this game though! You listen, you provide a positive contribution and maybe a next suggestion. Don’t start a discussion during the dialogue, how tempting it can be, just make notes. What can help is to print the rules, and put them on the table where your team member and you can see them clearly. They will remind you that no discussion is allowed during the improvement dialogue. Only when you are done with the improvement dialogue it is OK to discuss things you have written down during the improvement dialogue.

You have to accept the fact that not everyone in your team will like this approach. When they tell you they don’t like it up front, you may still give it a try with one card but don’t push it. The goal is never to just play this game, the goal is to have an open conversation with your team member. At the moment it doesn’t work, simply switch to a different approach. You can still ask the question but then just talk about. A good technique you can use is the Socratic questioning approach. I know people who use it often.

Remember that I told you that I think you need to keep the reviews a bit surprising? Jurgen came up with 160 cards… trust me… you won’t use all those cards in one review. You can use this approach over various review meetings. We used the approach also in our mid-year review. Furthermore, you can also use improvement dialogues in your one-on-one sessions with your team members.

I used the questions in review meetings with some team members and it worked great, with some other people it did not go that great. They didn’t like the concept and I switched to turning the statements into questions. When I started using the cards in my one-on-one meetings, people started to become better at improvement dialogues. It resulted in more insights and also in some good laughs, it was fun to use.

For the next reviews, I am again looking for a new approach, because I want to surprise and challenge my team members in a positive way again and again, but the improvement dialogue workout is definitely a workout I will again in the future.

What are your tools and techniques to keep the reviews interesting?


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