One of the things I am most proud of from my corporate HR tour of duty happened during my last stop as an HR executive about six years ago. Before it was trendy to do so, we lead a process to kill the traditional annual performance appraisal. I won’t spend time here explaining why we did it as I think it’s become pretty common knowledge that annual appraisals are fatally flawed.
The process we used to make the decision to kill the appraisal and what to replace it with involved stakeholders from across the organization. They arrived at the conclusion that the annual appraisal process was ineffective (and painful), but that it wasn’t because managers and employees lack a desire to have conversations about performance. It was a broken process. So, we helped them arrive at a better process.
What we developed was called the 4×4. At it’s most basic, the 4×4 boils down to a conversation between employee and manager that happens four times a year and centers on four questions. Every time I mention this process when I speak, there are always one or two people who approach me afterward to ask about this process (it happened again on Friday). So, I thought perhaps it was time to just lay out the process and the design principles here in a post.
4×4 Purpose and Intent
The idea of the 4×4 was to create a simple process structured around a few questions that would promote productive conversation between an employee and their manager about performance. These conversations would happen at least four times per year. We wanted the process to feel meaningful and engaging for both the manager and the employee. And, we wanted the employee to feel a strong sense of ownership for the process.
While the four questions are what most people first ask about (I’ll get to that in a minute), the design of the process is equally important.
- The employee schedules a meeting with their manager for their 4×4 conversation. Note that it is the employee who schedules the meeting. This creates accountability on the employee to ensure they are having this conversation. But, that doesn’t mean that the manager shouldn’t also be held accountable for the meetings taking place. If your employees aren’t requesting the meeting, that’s an issue that needs to be addressed because they should want to have this conversation.
- Employee and manager both prepare independently by answering the four questions (details coming below). Ideally, the manager and employee share their notes with each other in advance of their conversation. This allows the conversation to feel less like an update meeting and more like a conversation focused on what is most important.
- Meet to discuss the questions, calibrate expectations and make decisions. The design of the four questions was to focus the conversation on elements critical to performance. As issues are identified, they are discussed and agreements/decisions can be made.
- Employee documents the key discussion points and decisions made from the conversation and shares with the manager. Again, this puts the employee in a position of ownership and accountability to ensure value comes from the conversation. Plus, committing information to writing creates a level of clarity that is too often lacking in performance management.
- Manager reviews the employee’s notes to ensure agreement and alignment. This is one of the most important steps in the process. If the employee’s documentation does not reflect the conversation accurately (for example, he misunderstood some feedback), that’s a communication failure that the manager can address immediately. This loop in the process also provides a manager with real-time feedback to fuel their own development of critical management skills.
- Employee finalizes or closes the cycle. The employee gets the final word to reinforce that feeling of ownership of the process.
The Four Questions
The goal of these questions is to focus the conversation on the key elements of performance management: clarity of expectations, goals, feedback, support, and resources.
- What are your most significant accomplishments since we last met? This question creates an accountability for the employee to articulate progress and impact. This allows the employee to highlight things they are most proud of and own areas where they have been less successful. The manager can provide praise, appreciation, and constructive feedback here. It also gives managers a signal of where they should be providing more recognition based on what the employee is most proud of.
- What are the most important things you will focus on before we meet next? This question is about alignment. It prompts a discussion about goals and expectations. It allows the manager to see what the employee believes is most critical and where they are planning to focus their energy. This enables the manager to ensure the focus is in the right places.
- What obstacles are you encountering right now? This is an opportunity for the employee to identify any challenges they are facing. Maybe they are struggling with a colleague or they are lacking a tool they need to do their job effectively. Either way, it signals the manager where coaching might be needed or support is required. On the manager’s side, this is an opportunity to share observations and offer suggestions for how the employee could have more impact.
- What can I do better or differently as your manager to support you? This creates a regular feedback loop for the employee to help the manager get more in tuned to their individual needs and style. As a manager, if you remain open to this feedback, it provides the fuel and reinforcement needed to continually improve your skills and effectiveness.
Role of Technology
While this process can be executed using email and word docs, there are a number of tools available today that can automate this process (or a version of it). The advantages of using a performance management platform to automate are many.
For one, you can use the system to trigger conversation cycles four times a year. This means the employee gets a notification reminding them it’s time to start the process and providing them a link to do so. Also, when you use a system, all of the notes that the employees and managers entered are stored in the same place and create a narrative of performance over time. This narrative is visible to upline leaders and HR. Systems also make the sharing and documentation steps in the process much simpler and create a single place where the “official” conversation notes live.
While there are many advantages to using technology to automate this process, don’t stop if you can’t get the funding for it. The goal is the conversation, not the technology. So, use the tools you have to make those conversations happen.
- Frequency: In my opinion, four conversations a year is not nearly enough. However, you should always pursue progress over perfect. If you struggle today to get managers to have one performance meeting a year with each employee (which was the case where we designed the 4×4), then moving to four conversations a year is big progress. In my experience, a conversation once per month has worked ideally. But, the frequency should be determined based on your organization’s needs and business.
- Questions: The questions outlined above are a solid foundation that I think could work in nearly any business context. But, they aren’t magic. Again, you should adjust these items to be culturally relevant to your organization and objectives. You may decide you want to add a question or two. The key is to be clear on the intention of the item (as I have outlined above for each). Over the past year, I’ve found it really helpful to add an additional first question, “What is the most important thing we need to discuss?” I find this ensures that we spend ample time on the issues that are deemed most critical.
In the end, the thing to remember is that the goal of the process is to create an engaging conversation between an employee and their manager that has a positive impact on their performance. The rest is just details.