Managing ‘A’ players starts with good communication

Questioning, listening skills are key

Many managers are somewhat intimidated by the responsibility that comes with managing high performers. They have probably spent the bulk of their time managing employees of roughly average ability — not a bad thing, just a simple fact of corporate life — and, as a result, leading high performers may not feel as natural.

One of the most important places to make adjustments when dealing with high performers is in a manager’s communication style. Two communication skills, consultative questioning and active listening, will go a long way to boost commitment, increase two-way learning and ensure managers and high performers stay on the same page.

A partnership

The way managers communicate must demonstrate that they know they are in partnership with high performers. It’s these star performers who are getting the results; the managers are there to help them achieve more and become better. A manager’s biggest task is to keep them pointed in the right direction by asking effective questions and maintaining a respectful relationship.

Working from this consultative position delivers three major benefits: increased commitment, bottom-up learning and clarity.

Increased commitment: People are more committed to goals they “own.” One of the more powerful illustrations of this idea came from Rob Hall, a vice-president at TD Bank Financial Group. Hall was focused on lowering “expired credits” — files that have not undergone credit reviews in the previous two years. Moving this number required a major commitment from everyone on his team, so getting them committed to the goal was a critical success factor.

Hall was introduced to a collaborative goal-setting tool based around a series of questions that have been helpful in coaching high performers. He worked through the process with his team and arrived at a goal that was more ambitious than any he would have instituted in a traditional top-down manner. Furthermore, at the end of the day they blew even that goal out of the water — driving expired credits to the lowest level across the entire bank.

When asked what made the difference for his team, Hall’s answer was simple.

“It was the fact that it was the team’s goal — it wasn’t just my goal,” he said.

Bottom-up learning: There has been a lot written on the benefits reaped by organizations that let knowledge filter up effectively. In an article published in Harvard Business Review last May, Richard Pascale and Jerry Sternin wrote about the “groups of people doing things differently and better” in an organization, and the need to “find these areas of positive deviance and fan their flames”.

The same applies to the manager-employee relationship. Odds are, the high performers on a manager’s team are finding ways to do things “differently and better” and are willing to share them if the channels of communication are open.

Clarity: It’s very important that managers understand what motivates and what blocks a high performer. Focusing on asking and listening, instead of telling, brings managers into the loop when blocks are identified. This makes them a partner in improving performance. Because motivation is rarely a problem for high performers, simply uncovering and facilitating the elimination of these blocks can lead to dramatic changes in commitment.


To realize these benefits, several key skills are needed. The first skill, and the basis of a consultative style, is the ability to ask effective questions.

First and foremost, good questions don’t communicate an opinion. In a discussion of a poorly performing ad campaign, the consultative manager would ask, “We’ve had roughly 100 responses to this campaign, how many people do you think saw the ad?” as opposed to “Why was the response rate so low for this ad campaign?”

When trying to solve a problem or get a solution implemented, consultative managers avoid the word “why.” That word pushes people into defensiveness, which is extremely counter-productive to getting a solution implemented or a problem solved. Rephrasing the question can make a huge difference in the tone of the discussion.

Second, when questioning, try to follow the train of thought of the performer. If they seem to be off track, a manager might ask a simple question like, “How is this connected to what we are talking about?” Often with high performers, what appears to be tangential is tightly connected to the issue at hand in their mind, something that may have never been discovered if the manager had interjected with a value judgment such as “I think we’re off-topic.”

Finally, if there is an obvious solution or idea they haven’t mentioned, it is often helpful to say “I notice you haven’t mentioned X. Is there any reason for that?” Again a manager may discover the high performer has gone past the more obvious and is taking the manager into new territory in terms of his understanding of the issue, challenge or problem.

Active listening

Simply asking questions is obviously not enough. The second key component of being an effective consultative manager is actively listening.

When a manager listens actively, she is not only totally focused on understanding the speaker, she is also letting the speaker know she understands the person by reflecting back, in her own words, what she hears the person saying. This isn’t a simple case of saying “Yes, I understand” during the pauses in conversation. The listener’s paraphrase of what she has just heard communicates, “I heard, I understand your perspective and I would like to hear more.” This very powerful skill is undervalued by many managers.

A manager applying these skills will have a good start on achieving the benefits above, with one obvious caveat. The manager-employee relationship is not entirely a partnership. There will be times when it may be necessary to use the boss-subordinate power relationship. In these situations it is necessary to learn how to confront without damaging the relationship with the person, especially a high performer. Using the skills above on a day-to-day basis establishes rapport, communicates respect and builds trust. This will serve managers well at those times when they have to pull rank.

Peter Jensen is the founder of Performance Coaching Inc., the co-ordinating sport psychologist for the Canadian Olympic team, and an instructor at Queen’s School of Business in Kingston, Ont. He can be reached at [email protected].

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