Five conversations managers must have, following the recent shift in management focus

business school women talking

By Ally Yates, author of ‘Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business

A management position is often a reward for experience, knowledge and proven ability within the framework of the team.

On the one hand, excelling at what your team aims to achieve is a great starting point. The flip side is that most neophyte managers have little relevant experience; many managers lack any formal training in the essential management skills. Success is largely down to trial and error and the ability to be open to and reflect on opportunities for learning.

In addition, the theories of management have changed from an emphasis on the manager as command and control to a focus on employees. These days there’s less micro –management and more empowerment; less stick and more carrot. What’s remained consistent is the premise that the role of the manager is to get work done through others. What’s changing however, is the way in which managers engage with employees, and thereby create a motivating and productive environment.

The move from evaluator to developer is the most recent shift in management focus. The simple interpretation of the neuroscientific rationale behind this, is that the perceived fear of evaluation interferes with the brain’s capacity to take on new information, resulting in what Dr David Rock refers to as an ‘away-response’ – minimising danger. Development, on the other hand, fosters a ‘toward-response.’ – maximising reward. An indication of this change of focus is the abandonment of traditional performance management systems in many leading businesses. And with good cause, since research highlights that as few as one in ten employees felt the system improved their performance (e.g. Pulakos, 2004).

Even if your organisation has invested several thousands of pounds in the latest People Factors, Success Force, Super Duper, Whizz Bang, All-Singing, All-Dancing, Cloud-Based Solution, the fact is that what matters is the nature of the conversations that take place between manager and employee, and how well the manager brokers employee development aspirations with business needs.

The notion of the manager as developer depends on five crucial conversations that pepper the working day, week, month and year:


Unfortunately, in many businesses, performance goals are relegated to a cut and paste list of tasks that need to be performed, aka ‘the job’. Instead, goals should provide a focus for developing performance. Too many goals and it’s difficult to prioritise where to focus your effort. Too few goals and it can feel like you’re not making progress. It’s important to identify the 2-4 challenging goals that will have an impact. Learning goals, defined by psychologist Carol Dweck as “goals in which one pursues mastery and growth” are more motivating than performance goals – those goals that secure positive judgements about your achievements. Specific goals work better than generalities. Also, the harder the goal, the more it motivates. Wherever possible goals should help employees see ‘what’s in it for them’.


Feedback fuels performance! Without it, the employee’s engine will stutter. Too much of it – especially negative feedback – and the engine gets flooded and stalls. Feedback doesn’t have to mean a big, set-piece conversation. Indeed, it’s more valuable if feedback is frequent, balanced and intermittent. Frequent feedback develops people faster because it shortens the performance development cycle. Balanced feedback means that people get the recognition they crave for a job done well, or effort made, as well as constructive comments on how to do better. Intermittent feedback is useful in strengthening desired performance. Think of feedback as a ‘gift’ – if what you want to say to someone isn’t something they’re going to perceive as valuable, then it’s probably more for your benefit, so zip it! Recent research from the Neuroleadership Institute shows that feedback has more value when the employee asks for it, so it’s helpful if managers can model this and create an expectation that employees will actively seek feedback from colleagues, managers and customers. What they gather is a great source of learning.


Coaching is all about helping someone to improve their performance. Managers should be coaching most of the time if they are to achieve the double header of getting work done through others and developing people. The coaching could be reactive, and short-term, focussing on solving a problem, or tackling a tricky task. Coaching conversations can also take account of the longer-term job and career development of the individual.

Coaching relies on the manager being able to assess the resourcefulness of the individual through their conversation. Someone who’s struggling may need more direction. A highly-motivated, proactive team member is more likely to both accurately diagnose their needs and identify potential solutions.

If conversations 1-3 are happening regularly, both the manager and employee know where they’re headed, what help they need and if they’re on track. There are two other conversations that fall to the manager on a less regular basis:


This is the year-end review. In an ideal world, this conversation is a mere formality, tying up the threads of conversations that have taken place throughout the year. It’s an opportunity to review and celebrate what went well, providing recognition for a job well done and/or effort applied. It’s also the chance to reflect on what was less successful and why that might be. The purpose of the conversation is to learn and confirm. There should be no surprises.


The fifth and final conversation in the development cycle is reward: pay, bonus, and other types of remuneration, e.g. financed study, sabbatical, etc. Reward heavily influences an employee’s sense of fairness – is this reward commensurate with my performance? There’s a much greater chance of alignment if the previous conversations have happened regularly and honestly.

The success of these conversations lies in the manager having skills of inquiry, listening, and learning. Regrettably, these skills are in short supply. Reliance on systems also risks these skills heading towards extinction. If the manager acts as judge, pronouncing on an employee’s performance, there’s no conversation, only a monologue. Instead, if the manager leads with questions, exercising her curiosity, she’ll engage the employee, discovering much more about him and how best to help.

Darden professor Ed Hess, in his book: “Humility is the New Smart”, talks about the importance of listening to learn, not to confirm your existing preconceptions. Actively listening also sends a positive message to employees, that you value them and that you want to understand them.

The skills of inquiry, listening and learning are the conversational skills for smart managers, who can develop staff for now and for the future.

About the author

Ally Yates is author of ‘Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business’ and an expert on Behaviour Analysis and the interactions that define us. She combines a deep understanding of people and how to achieve results, based on her many years’ experience working with large corporate clients around the world.

Since 2000 Ally has been working as an independent consultant, facilitator, trainer and coach. She has collaborated with international business schools and has received national and international training awards.





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