Six questions to ensure staff are on track with their work priorities

Many managers struggle to get their staff to understand and align their work priorities to what is needed. Marshall Goldsmith, a US expert executive coach, recommends you ask six strategic questions to get direct reports on the right track. These questions effectively form the basis for a periodic performance review meeting with staff.

Goldsmith proposes quarterly one-on-one meetings with each staff member. Six key questions should be asked each time. These should create a healthy two-way discussion that helps to clarify priorities, ensures alignment, and promotes mutual understanding. These questions are additional to the uninspired questions that are the feature of most performance reviews.

1. Where are we going?

Share your views on key priorities for the larger organization. Then ask for your direct report’s views. This discussion will help ensure alignment between your views and her views on what really matters. Document this for that person. Like a visit to the doctor, people find it difficult to remember all the relevant information discussed in an appointment.

2. Where are you going?

Discuss where this direct report (and her part of the business) should be headed. Then ask for her views on the desired direction. This dialogue will help ensure alignment between your management of the larger organization and her management of her part of your organization.

3. What are you doing well?

Discuss your views on your direct report’s key achievements. Then ask her to share her views on what she is doing well. Sometimes our lack of recognition is not a function of not caring – it is a function of not understanding achievements from the other person’s perspective. By asking, “What do you think you are doing well?” we can get their perspectives.

4. What changes can lead to improvement?

Share your ideas on how more progress can be made by her and by the organization in the future – then ask for her ideas. Accept that some of her ideas may be more useful than yours.

5. How can I help?

Ask for ideas on how you can better help her achieve agreed goals. You might need to be more available to give ongoing feedback or guidance. She might need you to listen better – many managers are not good listeners to their staff.

6. What suggestions do you have for me?

Ask for her ideas on changes that you can make to become a more effective manager. If you want her to focus on continuous improvement, you can lead by example. Research shows that the best managers ask their subordinates for their opinions on how the manager can improve.

(Another effective question to help identify a staff member’s strengths is to ask them what was the best day they have had at work in the past three months. Then follow this with a question about the worst day they have had at work in the past three months. This should help to point to areas of their performance that can be improved.)

In between each quarterly “six questions” dialogue, establish your mutual responsibility for continued alignment. Let her be responsible for immediately contacting you if she is ever uncertain about priorities or needs feedback. You be responsible for contacting her if the business situation changes and you need to re-set priorities.

Try asking the questions in your direct report performance management discussions

Goldsmith says the six simple questions produce powerful results. Try them in your performance management discussions.

I  remember my last performance review meeting with my boss in my former job (I am the boss in my current job, thankfully). He never got around to half the questions in Goldsmith’s half dozen. If he had, we would have created a more productive discussion. In future meetings of this kind I will know some questions to ask.

If you aren’t in a supervisory position, you can ask your manager or supervisor the answers to the above questions. In other words, you can take the initiative and lead the discussion between you and your boss. It will be worthwhile to do this as it will lead to more effective performance on your part and probably on your boss’s part!

Even if you are a manager, you can ask your own boss some of the six questions. This will make you more effective in your own work.

This is adapted from a 2007 Marshall Goldsmith article in the Harvard Business Review.

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