121s – The single most effective tool for improving performance at work?

I am continually surprised by the number of organisations that I work with who are exploring the ‘higher planes’ of performance management and the pursuit of excellence (using balanced scorecards, strategy maps and so on) who do not yet practice some of the management fundamentals, such as 121s, feedback and coaching.  By getting these management basics right I believe that most organisations can make substantial improvements in performance quickly and at low cost.

What is a 121?

A 121 is a planned, structured, documented meeting between a manager and a direct report held on a weekly.

Why are they so effective in improving performance?

  1. 121s provide the foundation on which managers and their reports can build a genuine and powerful working relationship that provides the foundation for high performance.
  2. They provide the report with the opportunity to bring to their manager’s attention where they need help, support or permission to act.  Providing reports with this opportunity in a structured way will dramatically reduce the time that managers spend reacting to ad hoc requests.
  3. They give managers the chance to talk about issues that have occurred over the course of the week that may impact on the report – either because of changing priorities in the business or because of some aspect of their work.
  4. Managers have the chance to talk on a weekly basis about the medium and longer term future.  What training and development does the report need to develop their career?  What projects and opportunities might be on the horizon that the report may be interested in working on?
  5. 121s provide the foundation that allows manager’s to make the transition from fire fighting to genuinely managing and developing performance.

I manage 10 direct reports – I won’t have time to do weekly one to ones.

Lack of time is the most common objection to implementing 121s.  If the manager has a team of ten, then 121s will take about 6 hours a week – allowing a little time for note-taking and follow-up actions.

After 2-3 weeks of doing 121s the vast majority of manager’s report that they are saving time.  Because reports know that they have structured time with the manager they will hold non-critical issues until the 121, instead of raising them whenever they have the chance.  Interruptions are reduced significantly.

Regular 121s allow many minor adjustments to be made in the work of, and relationship with, the report.  This means that more problems are nipped in the bud and more opportunities are spotted and acted upon quickly – saving lots of fire-fighting time later on.

Scheduling 121s can be a problem.  But most managers’ diaries have plenty of space just 3-4 weeks ahead.  This is the time to start booking 121s.

If the number of direct reports goes much above 12 then fitting in weekly 121s can be a problem – and they can be made fortnightly instead of weekly.  If your team is made up of some full and some part-timers then you may want to schedule 121s with part-timers on a less frequent basis.  121s still work if they are not done weekly, but they do not work as well and the results take longer to show.

Why do 121s have to be documented?

Taking notes, and following up on them, is a vital part of effective 121s.  It demonstrates that you are taking the meeting seriously and that you are committing to acting on what is discussed.  The notes also provide a comprehensive record of what has been discussed with the report over the year and make annual performance reviews much easier to do.  They also allow you to keep accurate records that can be helpful when making a case for promotion or dealing with poor performance.  I recommend the use of a simple proforma, which is handwritten during the 121, and stored securely in a file for each direct report.

Making the Commitment

121s show a very real commitment from the manager to each of their direct reports.  This commitment has to be maintained so that 121s become part of the management routine.  They should hardly ever be missed.  121s have a major impact on organisational culture when they are adopted throughout the organisation as they show a real commitment to people and performance.  However if the organisation is not prepared to commit top them as a part of the culture, they work just as effectively for individual managers who chose to adopt them.  In fact these managers soon develop a reputation for excellent service delivery, as great people developers and soon stand out from the managerial crowd.

Implementing 121s

Making 121s work requires both will and skill.  Managers can be trained in how to effectively set up and maintain a system of 121s in a half day training session.

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