Line managers have a duty to move away from ‘deficit-oriented’ methods of assessing performance, according to new research from CIPD.

In a study conducted in partnership with the UK Civil Service, the learning and development accreditation group examined before-and-after data around workplace interventions at three government agencies: Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the National Offender Management Service and the Valuation Office Agency.

Employees’ feedback suggested a marked improvement in the usefulness of performance conversations when they took the form of strengths-based conversations. Indeed, the interventions as a whole led to a 9.7% increase in employees backing the statement, “My meetings with my line manager help me learn and develop as a professional”.

CIPD senior research adviser for organisational behaviour Jonny Gifford said: “The strengths-based approach marks a big shift in mind-set for many, if not most, of us. Our default mode when looking for improvements tends to be deficit-oriented – we hone in on what’s gone wrong and consider how we can avoid that in the future … our research shows the benefit of making the norm in performance conversations to reflect instead on what worked well, why, and how it can be replicated.”

He added: “The research demonstrated that by focusing on the positives and building on what works, we can actually boost employee performance and help with the learning and development of our teams.”

However, Gifford did concede that there “will always be cases where it’s imperative” to examine shortcomings and errors. So, where should leaders draw the line? At what point does it become imperative to depart from a strengths-based approach and look squarely at where employees have gone wrong?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Deficit-based approaches to personal development have been around for so long that I can only welcome this refreshing research from CIPD. The idea that you have an audit that focuses only upon highlighting weaknesses and identifying gaps between where you are and where you’d like to be is an extremely flawed approach. Particularly if you’re aiming to ignite people’s passion so that they bring the best of themselves to work, or deliver outputs that inspire, motivate and encourage those around them. Those results must be achieved through people’s strengths, and must relate to the things that they care about the most.

“Now, clearly,” Cooper notes, “there must be a benchmark: a standard below which we do not fall. And that is determined by the culture of the organisation. The core question for every workplace is, ‘What is acceptable around here?’ Whether it’s to do with punctuality, meeting deadlines, the prevailing quality of the work, the tone of emails, the way we speak to customers… the culture sets and defines our minimum standards. As a manager at a performance appraisal, of course you engage with things that don’t fit culturally: ‘That’s not how we do things around here.’ That way it becomes easier, in many ways, to point out decisions or actions that are at odds with those cultural norms, and devise ways of ensuring that they don’t recur.”

She adds: “That’s a very different proposition to saying – in that dour, deficit-based fashion – ‘Well, you’re very weak on these points and you really need to work on them.’ It’s true that talent is but one part of what an employee needs to offer. It is also vital to bring a sense of ownership, the ability to work with others and the desire to deliver outcomes. But people’s strengths are what ignite their passions. To make the most of them, managers and leaders should devote time to strengths-based Appreciative Inquiry, which will enable them to explore areas in which their employees are good – and then devise strategies for making them great.”

For further thoughts on performance management, check out these learning resources from the Institute