A quiet revolution is underway in how companies manage employee performance. In recent years, organizations have begun to prioritize processes for improving future performance over evaluating employees’ past efforts. Yearly development objectives, annual reviews, and formal feedback tools, long championed by human resource departments, are being replaced by real-time feedback delivered directly by line managers.
Although this shift holds much promise, it risks bumping up against some hard realities — namely, the ability of line managers to help employees develop. We surveyed more than 500 managers around the world. About three-quarters of the managers said they had no trouble helping employees identify and understand which behaviors they needed to change to improve performance, and roughly the same percentage said they knew how to deliver feedback. Yet only about one-third said they knew what to do to help people change, and less than 10% had confidence about making behavior change stick over time. Little wonder, then, that less than half of the managers we surveyed believed that efforts to change behavior actually work. If line managers are the linchpin of the new performance management process, a 50% success rate is not good enough.
A possible explanation of these findings is that change is tough. Yet research shows that people can and do change. The frustration expressed by managers was not that development was difficult, but that it was unpredictable — that sometimes it happened and other times it didn’t.
It turns out that psychologists and behavioral economists know a lot about how behavior change works. The trouble is that their insights are rarely presented in a way that managers can apply. During the past five years, we sorted through decades of psychological research in an effort to help managers become more effective in fostering change and development.
Conventional approaches to change involve a simple, two-step process: First, identify what needs to change, and then resolve the issue, usually by providing information about what new behaviors are needed through advice, feedback, or training. Interventions using this model are straightforward, but largely ineffective. Recognizing the limitations, many organizations have recently moved to coaching by managers. Coaching conversations have a different — more collaborative — tone than the more instructional “identify and resolve” approach, but at their core they are still primarily about identifying what people need to change and what they must do about it.