New research published by the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, shows that line managers can improve the performance of their teams by focussing on building their strengths, rather than trying to fix their weaknesses.

‘Strengths-based performance conversations’ aims to move managers away from a deficit-oriented method, which is focused on identifying and fixing the weaknesses of team members, analysing what has gone wrong and considering how that can be avoided in the future. The new study of performance management outcomes in the civil service shows that that employee performance can be improved by a simple training intervention focused on building strengths instead of fixing weaknesses. These results can be boosted by a more extensive intervention, which includes wider communication and changes to HR policy, as well as manager training.

Jonny Gifford, senior research adviser for organisational behaviour at the CIPD, 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. There will always be cases where it’s imperative to do this, but 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.

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

The CIPD research centred on workplace interventions in three government organisations: Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the National Offender Management Service (NOMS, now called Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, or HMPPS) and the Valuation Office Agency (VOA), as well as work with the Civil Service Employee Policy team. The field study involved before-and-after measures, comparing control groups who were not given any training or support with treatment groups who attended a training workshop on leading strengths-based performance conversations. In the VOA there were additional interventions including a change in HR policy on performance management.

The feedback from employees after the study suggests a marked improvement in how useful performance conversations were when they focussed on strengths-based conversations. Overall, the interventions led to a 9.7% increase in employees agreeing with the statement, ‘My meetings with my line manager help me learn and develop as a professional’. There was also a 7.4% increase in those agreeing with the statement, ‘My meetings with my line manager help to improve my performance’.

Andrew Kean, Deputy Director of Civil Service Employee Policy, said:

“In the Civil Service, we know that the quality of the performance conversation between the manager and their employee is fundamental to any good performance management approach. So we are delighted that this research, which has centred on the nature and quality of performance conversations, has provided such clear results. In particular, that a simple training intervention focused on building strengths instead of fixing weaknesses positively influences the performance conversations that take place between managers and their staff.” 

David Ede, Director of People and Organisational Development at the Valuation Office Agency, said:

“It has been a really useful experience to have the CIPD research running alongside our own internal performance management pilot.  This has allowed for a comparison between a holistic approach to performance management (complete policy change and cultural shift to coaching conversations) and a more discrete strengths-based intervention where the policy has remained unchanged.  VOA has been doing its own internal evaluation of our pilot and worked alongside the CIPD to feed into their research.”