People Management and the art of the Kicking Session

Thousands of books on management practice have been written, covering a multitude of disciplines and methods. Some are excellent, some not so much – but none of them are as important a read as you’ll get from ‘reading’, and talking to, your colleagues.

When I started in my career, staff appraisal tools were only just becoming computerised – and they didn’t really do much that couldn’t have been achieved equally well on paper. The tools were rolled out once a year, and the idea of a 360 degree appraisal was limited to getting your friends and tame managers to fill the review box with glowing words about your astonishing performance for the last year – on a I scratch your back, you scratch mine basis (or cribsy marking as we called it when I was at school.) It was all a bit of a joke, and no-one treated it very seriously.

As the years went by, the tools became more automated and more useful. The obvious hole, that of nominating your own reviewers, was filled and the majority of the reviewers were nominated automatically for you. The tools started to be used more frequently, and the results became anonymised. Other things changed too, primarily to make it easier to derive metrics, so rather than the text of the review being the object, a number between one and ten (sometimes with a pretty graphic attached) became the main data point with the text being demoted to a mere optional extra.

A new question was asked “What’s the point?” The old system had a point – it was to screw a better end of year appraisal out of your employer, deserved or not. In either event though, both methods are seen as a bit of a joke, and something of a waste of time.

I admit that, in those early days of my career, I used to do the same as everyone else. Friends were lined up to do the review, and when it came to the time of my appraisal I’d always discover… Nothing. I learned nothing new about myself, I didn’t know what I needed to do to perform better in future years. So I cast the net more widely, I didn’t limit my reviewers to my friends – I made sure to include people who’d stick the boot in.

It wasn’t just the tools that changed over the years, I advanced in my career too. I wasn’t just responsible for myself anymore, I was responsible for other people. I became responsible for strategy – the rope I had to hang myself with got longer and longer, so I thought I’d probably better make a hammock instead.

So why is the new system regarded as pointless? The answer is few people believe that the results are ever checked, and they don’t understand how a mere number is going to tell anyone anything. Furthermore, there may also be a trust issue – everyone has a distinct writing style and by adding a written comment they fear that they might de-anonymise themselves. It’s very frustrating since, as a manager, I want to be able to support my staff and the business better and I need this information in order to do that. In short, I need to be able to read my colleagues (whether they’re my peers, my direct reports, or my managers).

My solution for this is what I term a Kicking Session, a session where I share my results – and particularly my worst results – in an attempt to better understand them. A session where I am the football. These results are shared en-masse with the team – partly because there aren’t enough hours in the day to approach such a session individually, but mostly because there’s strength in numbers and I want everyone to feel secure.

Some teams that I’ve worked with are easier to have such a session with – these are the teams which are confident, and which have learned to trust me, the teams who understand that I’m not going to seek revenge for any criticism delivered.

Others, particularly young or new teams, are much harder – they’ll try to sugar-coat the pill or deny any understanding for a low score. In such cases I include a ringer – someone who I’ve worked with previously and who know to be honest and confident, and who I can trust to ‘throw the first kick’.

It’s worth doing – and the results are illuminating. In many cases, there are actions that I can take directly to improve matters for my reports. In other cases, there may be actions that I can escalate. Sometimes, it’s an action that might be shared between us. It’s a bit like an Agile retro, but one which applies to an individual – me. The numbers from the report are a handy guide, they show me what I need to focus on the most, but by having these conversations I can learn what I need to do with numbers, what actions I need to take.

In a modern, well run, business, the manager cannot sit in an office, protected from the people that they work with. We can no longer get away with a “my way or the highway” attitude. We’re on a shared journey where we know the destination (it’s product being made or the mission of the business), but where we have to agree on the route used to get there. There will be disagreement, and it may not always be possible to persuade everyone that the route chosen is optimal. The very least that we need to do is persuade our colleagues that they have been listened to, and that their opinion has been taken into account – even if, at the end of the day, it didn’t end up being used.

I find these sessions are really useful for helping me to improve, and I hope that they’re useful in bonding a team and building trust – I’d be interested to hear what others think, particularly those who have provided so much useful feedback to me over the years.

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