What's in a good conversation? The ability to judge this doesn't always come naturally, especially when you're 'in the moment' and dealing with tricky subjects such as performance.
Research shows that conversations we find difficult tend to be handled badly or avoided completely by over 90% of managers [Performance Coaching International, Coaching at Work, 2008] – and that's managers in any sector, not just engineering. There are always good reasons why managers prefer to avoid these conversations. Some, such as being afraid of the other person's reaction, are commonplace in any industry; other reasons are more likely to apply in particular industries because each industry will attract certain types of people.
Engineering is no exception. It tends to attract problem-solvers who look for logical, rational solutions – as such, their focus naturally tends to be on task rather than on people. This poses particular challenges that engineering managers must overcome to be better at dealing with people's performance.
In this post, I'll highlight three changes that engineering managers need to make to have better performance conversations with their teams.
1. They need to stop solving problems
Because engineers are solution-focussed problem-solvers, when discussing someone’s performance they tend to listen for the problems and then tell the other person how to fix them. While the intention is positive, this actually frustrates the other person at best, and demotivates them at worst.
Instead, engineering managers need to stop solving the other person’s problem and give them the space to solve it for themselves. This doesn't mean telling the other person to get on and fix it, but rather implementing changes (2) and (3) below.
2. They need to stop asking action questions
Linked to their propensity for problem-solving, engineering managers have a tendency to listen only until they decide they have enough information to solve the problem. This means they may have stopped listening long before the other person has finished sharing.
There are a number of risks with this, one of the main ones being that the manager doesn’t ever really get the complete picture and ends up solving the wrong problem.
Engineering managers need to keep listening beyond the point at which they believe they can solve the problem. They need to ask questions that dig into what the other person is saying and so open up new insights for that individual. This way, managers make it far easier for the other person to solve the problem and avoid disempowering their reports by fixing it themselves.
3. They need to stop deciding they've heard enough
Even for those engineering managers who avoid telling the person what solution will help them improve their performance, there is a tendency to ask what I call an ‘action question’ far too early in the conversation.
The conversation goes something like this:
- The person describes their problem
- The manager listens
- When the person stops speaking the manager asks, "So what do you think you should do about this?"
Believe me, if it were that simple the person would already have come up with the solution. At this early stage of the conversation, they don't know what the answer is.
Instead of asking an action question, the manager should ask questions that encourage exploration of what is happening now.
- "What more can you tell me about this?"
- "What specifically is your concern?"
- "What is the specific problem you are facing?"
- "What is getting in the way of solving the issue?"
- "What do you need to help you find a solution?"
By encouraging exploration, the manager will allow the other person to get 'under the skin' of the situation. This will help all parties better analyse what is wrong and work together to build a more effective solution.
- Stop solving problems
- Stop asking action questions
- Stop deciding they've heard enough
Three changes which will mean engineering managers have better performance conversations. Making these changes will create the space for individuals to improve their performance in a way that is motivating and empowering. For this to work, the manager must act in a way that runs counter to their more natural task focus and put the other person centre stage instead.