More Great Questions to Improve Performance

In an earlier post – Great Questions for Improving Performance through 121s I offered some questions that have worked well for me in 121s.

Well, here are some more.

  • What could you do which, done really well, would make a real difference to this organisation?
  • What do you need, from me, in order to help you to make your best contribution to the company?
  • What are the things for which I, and the organisation, should hold you accountable?  What should we expect from you?
  • How can we best use your knowledge, skills, passion and interest to help the company develop?
  • Who uses the outputs of your work?  What can you do to make sure that your outputs are well used?

Of course these questions can also work well outside of 121s.  The real point is that only when you start to explore questions like these with each member of your team will you really start to improve communication, teamwork and performance.

And of course the answers to the questions change continually as the business and its environment change – so this needs to be an ongoing and frequent dialogue.

This is the real work of coaching, development and performance management.

The Only Thing I Can Manage

It has yet to be proven that anyone can really manage anyone else. We can influence, encourage even persuade. But manage?

The only person that we can really manage is ourselves. So next time as a manager you are confronted with a problem start to look for the solution in ever increasing concentric circles – starting from your desk.

The only thing that you can manage is you.

Yet so many managers fixate on managing other people, managing problems and opportunities that they hardly ever consider their own potential for development and change.

  • What changes can you make in the way that you do your work that will help those that work with you to do their best work? 

Great Questions for Improving Performance through 121s

I recommend that you divide your 121s into three sections.
The first 10 minutes are for your team member to share what matters to them – but the second 10 minutes are yours.
The art of using this time well is to have some really well chosen and insightful questions.
Some of the questions that I think have been most effective for me are:

  • What else should I know about your work?
  • What would you like to tell me about this organisation?
  • Where do you see opportunities that we do not exploit?
  • Where do you see problems that we have not yet recognised?
  • What would you like to know from me about the organisation?
  • What do I do that you would like me to do more of?
  • What do I do that wastes your time without contributing to your effectiveness?
  • What would you like me to start doing?

Now some of these questions require that you have a pretty strong relationship already, so they are probably not for the very first 121 meetings. Wait until you have developed some rapport and trust.
It is important that you are prepared to listen to the answers and respond effectively.
If you are not prepared to act on the response to a question, or fully explain your reasons for not acting, then it is best not to ask the question.
Remember – this is a 121. It is not the Spanish Inquisition. You will probably not have time for more than 1 or 2 questions – especially if you are also using the 121 to give feedback and to coach (which you should be!). 121s are about regular, frequent conversations that allow you to cover ground over a prolonged period of time. So don’t rush it.

What questions have worked well for you in 121s?

More great questions here.

Performance Improvement with Brilliant 121s

One-to-ones are weekly, structured, half hour meetings held individually with each of your team members. They provide the bedrock for an effective trusting relationship that is essential for high performing teams.

The most common excuse that managers give for not using One to Ones is that they will take too much time. In practice, managers who use One to Ones effectively report that they actually save time – lots of time – and improve performance quickly and permanently.

Key Benefits

  • Improve your relationship and communication with all members of your team
  • Find time to coach every member of your team – every week – to improve their performance
  • Save time on line management to invest in thinking more strategically and working on your own projects
  • Shift the emphasis from fire-fighting to creating value
  • Close the gap between practice, values and mission
  • Improve effectiveness, whether in the for profit or third sector

If you would like to learn more about 121s then please click here to find out more about our events.

There are some great 121 questions in this post.

Anger and Decision Making

Imagine that there are two people. You have to choose one of them to make an important decision. The first is cool, calm and analytical. The second is red-faced, with a vein throbbing on the side of their neck, angry.

Who do you choose to make the decision? Of course its a no brainer. Cool calm and analytical right?


According to recent research

“angry subjects were better able to discriminate between strong and weak arguments than the ones who were not angry—suggesting that anger can transform even those people who are, by disposition, not very analytical into more careful thinkers”

Despite its reputation as a trigger for rash behaviour, anger seems to help people make better choices—even aiding those who are usually very poor at thinking rationally. This could be because angry people base their decisions on the cues that “really matter” rather than things that can be called irrelevant or a distraction.

So armed with this knowledge what is a good manager to do?

Well firstly I do not recommend that you go around making sure that everyone is good and mad before they decide whether to have tuna or cheese with their salad. No, save this knowledge for when a big decision has to be made.

Translate ‘anger’ into a ‘sense of urgency’. Make sure that people know that their decision will have consequences that matter – to them. Get the adrenaline flowing – this matters. Anger evolved as a physiological state designed to make us make things happen. And this is what good managers are all about. Making things happen – albeit through other people. Developing a culture that is characterised by a sense of urgency will help people to take more and better decisions.

But be careful. Although the researchers do not report on it, I am sure that while too much anger might not be an issue to a Neanderthal backed into a cave by a sabre toothed tiger – it would be an issue for a manager being asked about a slipped deadline by their boss. My guess is that you just need to ‘feel the edge’ to gain the benefit in your decision making at work.

So anger matters – and (at the right levels) it helps. It is a great motivator that can fuel good decision making and action. Anger and passion are just flip sides of the same coin. Just how much passion can your culture stand?

The Fat Cat, Improving Performance, Office Hours and 121s

Office Hours

One of the bedrock management processes should be documented, 121 meetings, for 30 minutes every week, structured and planned well in advance with each and every direct report.

These save time and massively improve the quality of both the working and personal relationship as well as providing a platform for coaching, feedback, performance management and accountability.

In this article Paige Arnoff-Fenn learns a similar lesson. First she describes the scenario – a senior manager at work.

“He spends his entire day in meetings, walking between conference rooms or driving to his next appointment. He gets stopped in the hallways or gets messages through his Blackberry from his team to answer questions and make real-time decisions that keep their projects moving forward until he returns to his office after 5 p.m.

He eyeballs his e-mail throughout the day, multitasking in meetings, and checks voice mail during bio breaks, but he’s virtually never in his office during “normal business hours” whatever that even means anymore. There’s no “think time” to reflect and process information today, and we’re being inundated with more data and information than ever before.”

This manager decided to start holding ‘office hours’ for three hours each week.

He sent his team an e-mail to announce his plan and he arrived at his office at the scheduled time on the designated day. To his delight and surprise, members of his team stopped by all afternoon. Employees were thrilled to know they were guaranteed to find him sitting at his desk.

I have no doubt that the volume of e-mail from his team declined significantly. Because his team members perceive that he has power over them and their careers they find reasons to remind him that they are there and that they are doing good work – through his e-mail. If they know that they will get face to face time then this need to be ‘heard’ falls away.

Now I would not recommend a manager to implement ‘office hours’ in the way that this manager did it. I can imagine it being like a doctors waiting room when the office hours start. Or like a shoe shop on a busy day – please take a ticket and wait your turn. The lack of structure and purpose too would drive me mad. But with a little adjustment we would have a great system of 121s and a significant step towards becoming a high performing team would be taken.

If you would like to learn how to use 121s to improve performance in your team then please get in touch or attend one of our training sessions.

PS Take another look at the opening hours sign. Did you think that the Fat Cat was a Free House?

Moving To A Single Solution – why brainstorming is hard!

I often get to witness meetings where a group of people are trying to solve a problem.  On a good day perhaps two or three options will be generated before one emerges and starts to be refined as ‘the solution’.  This is the managerial mindset – moving quickly to a preferred solution – and moving on to the next problem.

Which is why so many managers and their teams find brainstorming hard.

Brainstorming is not about finding a preferred solution.  It is about finding as many potential solutions and ideas as possible.

It is about quantity.

Quality and refinement can come later.

It is about generating ideas collectively.

Feeding off each others creativity.

Allowing one persons thinking to fuel another’s.

Having fun.

Perhaps it is what work should be like more of the time?

Are They Coachable?

“Years ago, at the great Bolshoi Ballet, auditions for the troupe were conducted among 8 year old girls. That’s because it took ten years to become great. How did the auditions work? The teachers weren’t looking for the best dancers. They were looking for the dancers who took coaching the best. The rest would come with time.”

This from marketing guru Seth Godin’s blog is well worth a read.

Not that I agree with all of it. For example, challenging the coach’s credentials makes a lot of sense to me. It is a sure fire sign that the coach is advising (if your gonna tell me what I should be doing you had better be an expert) rather than coaching – which is a process that helps the learner to find their own path to improvement. Of course occasionally a coach might go into ‘prescriptive’ mode – but not often.

The quality we should be looking in people who will operate at the highest level is not ‘coachability’ but ‘learnability’. How good are they at learning? How curious are they? How much new stuff will they try? Will they try it for long enough to see if it really works. Will they learn something even if it is not made conveniently packaged in their ‘preferred learning style’?

It is this hunger for performance improvement that really gives the edge.

How do you recruit for it?

How do your management practices nurture it?

How do you model it?

How do you manage those who have lost it?

Lead me, follow me or get out of my way!

David Greer is deputy CEO of Royal Dutch Shell’s Sakhalin Energy Investment Company. Now this is a business that is navigating tricky waters – and Mr Greer smartly recognised that staff motivation had taken a dip and needed lifting. A familiar problem to most managers.

So Mr Greer (or one of his staff perhaps) scans a copy of ‘Great Speeches from History’ and finds General Patton’s speech to the troops given the morning before the D-day landings. Here is some prose that will surely put the fire back in their bellies. With some careful updating and other contextual adjustments (including delivery via e-mail rather than face to face), a great, if derivative, motivational e-mail is sent to employees. It is soon recognised for what it is, leaked to the media, and Mr Greer’s problem is 10 times worse. Not only has he now got a de-motivated workforce – he has lost credibility into the bargain.
Most of the criticism that Mr Greer has attracted has been about his failure to find his own words.  His decision not to speak authentically – but to borrow from history.
I think this misses the point.
In modern businesses motivation and inspiration cannot come in the form of the occasional missive from the top.  It has to emerge from the day to day interactions of team members and managers who understand that they are doing something worthwhile. Something that matters.  Who respect and trust each other as members of the team.  Who stay in touch with the purpose and meaning of their endeavour.
In the words of Zig Ziglar:

‘People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily’.

If Mr Greer had presided over an organisation where every manager talked regularly with their team members about why the work mattered, about the importance of what they were doing, about what they as team members really wanted to achieve – his desperate clarion call from the Executive Suite may not have been necessary at all.