The development talk – the 1-on-1 that a manager and employee usually engage in once or twice a year following a performance review – is not always all that liked in organizations. In fact, both managers and employees are often stressed out and nervous about them. These dreads can – and should – be overcome, however: The development talk is a great opportunity to strengthen the relationship between manager and employee, boost engagement, and accelerate employee development. 

One reason why development talks have been unpopular in the past is that they tend to focus on past performance and the employee’s shortcomings. This adds little value, and also creates stress and demotivation. What current research is proposing is instead that the development talk should be a forward-looking, strengths-focused conversation. A great development talk has two key purposes: To make the employee feel appreciated and supported, and to help the employee develop. In what follows, we share some of our key tips for attaining these aims. 

  • Set the scene straight away. The best way to secure a good atmosphere for the talk is to start out by conveying support and appreciation. Clarify to the employee that your most important task in the talk is to help him or her forward in his or her development. This will help you establish a less evaluative and more forward-looking focus. 
  • Focus on strengths (given that the employee is on track). Research shows that we develop the most at work when we continuously build on our strengths, rather than trying to eradicate all weaknesses. For instance, a brilliant analyst should probably continue developing his or her analytical skills rather than trying to become a better leader. Hence, a good idea is to spend time delving into the employee’s real strong suits. Relevant questions include: “When do you feel like you really get to use these strengths at work? How could we make sure you get to use them even more?” There is an exception, however: If the employee is clearly underperforming, focus should be on important development areas. Read more about this case here
  • Ask questions rather than telling 'truths'. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you as a manager should ‘tell’ the employee how he or she is doing. That, however, tends to make the employee a passive receptor. Instead, start from the assumption that the employee him- or herself knows best how work is going. Aim to learn as much as possible about his or her work situation during the conversation. A good way to do so is to go through the employee’s review results prior to the talk, and prepare follow-up questions on things that you want to explore further. 
  • Allot more time to the future than to the past. Avoid spending lengthy time discussing details about past projects or tasks. To the extent that the past is in focus, it should be in the sense of: “What learnings do you take with you from the past period?” Instead, focus mainly on how the employee wants to develop over the coming months. Which skills and behaviors does he or she want to acquire? How can you as a manager help with this?
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