A manager's guide to performance development

September 22, 2021

Female manager bossing it

We believe that managers should have regular, honest and practical discussions with their teams about performance. We also believe that these discussions should fit into your day-to-day easily… unlike the upheaval of annual appraisals.

Teams that move towards a culture of ongoing performance development see increased productivity, engagement and customer satisfaction scores, according to a 2015 study.

But we also know it’s easier said than done. That’s why we’re sharing 5 tried-and-tested ways of developing your team’s performance. Whether you manage one person or a team of 10. Whether you’re new to management or have years of experience.  

Before we dive in, let’s make sure we have the same understanding of what performance development is to begin with.

What is Performance Development really?

Performance development is any activity that motivates and encourages an improvement in employee performance. Traditionally, organisations have invested more of their budget, time and energy into Performance Management than Development.

So how is it different from Performance Management?

Sonia Boyle, VP of HR at GE Canada puts it nicely:

“Traditionally, performance management, as we would call it, was really a look back. It was formal, it was usually once a year, sometimes twice. But it was always looking backward. And I think in order for any type of performance development system to be worthwhile, it really needs to be about trying to go forward.”

Old: End of year appraisal and goal setting → New: Frequent conversations, check-ins, 1-1's

Old: Annual feedback and assessment → New: Continuous feedback with the ability to review at any given point

Old: Following a long term plan → New: Responding to change

Old: Focus on scoring or grading → New: Focus on coaching and development

As a result of this shift, companies like GE are increasingly separating performance management into two distinct activities: performance measurement and performance development.


The 5 tried-and-tested ways of developing your team’s performance

  1. Maximise employee strengths
  2. Give regular feedback the right way
  3. Encourage career development conversations
  4. Set goals as a team
  5. Reflect as team through regular retrospectives

Note: The first three conversations are best had one-on-one; between a manager and their direct reports. We encourage you to have conversations 4 and 5 as a team.

1. Maximise employee strengths

When was the last time you talked about strengths? As a manager, have you had a meaningful discussion about your employee’s strengths in the last three months? If not, book some time in.

Why is this important?

According to Gallup, whether you’ve had a meaningful discussion about your employee’s strengths in the last three months is a strong predictor of employee engagement and performance.

That’s because when managers are committed to building their employees’ strengths, employees feel cared for and feel that they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day. In fact, employees who use their strengths every day have a 50% higher retention rate, according to Marcus Buckingham.


How do I do it?

Timeframe: 1 hour

Number of people: 2, the team lead and their direct report.

Preparation: You should give your direct reports time to prepare for this conversation. Let them know that you’d like to have a one-to-one meeting to understand their strengths and how they can get the most out of them.

Template: Add the following talking points to the agenda for your next one-to-one and share it in advance.

  1. What are you like at your best?
  2. Choose a family member, a close friend and a colleague. How would each of these people describe your strengths?
  3. Think back on your career. What strengths have you used in the past?
  4. What’s your personal Unique Selling Point (drawing on the strengths discussed in previous 3 questions)
  5. How could you use these strengths more at work?
  6. Who can you ask for strengths-based feedback before we next meet

Then, listen carefully

Your main role during this one-to-one is to listen closely, jot down all the strengths that come up and look out for themes. Your employee may share their strengths in a jumbled way or may struggle to identify themes clearly. By listening carefully you will help them make sense of it all.

As their manager, you can also provide feedback on strengths that you see in them or bring up strengths that they may have forgotten.

Bonus points: Reverse roles

So far we’ve explained how a manager can help an employee identify their strengths but there is no reason why you can’t reverse roles and repeat! In fact, by doing it the other way round your direct report will learn more about you and is likely to trust you more.

What’s more, your direct report is often well-placed to help you uncover some of your own strengths.

Saberr makes it easy

With personality and values surveys, we help managers to get the best out of every person in their team, every day.

Saberr's personality survey illustrative output

2. Give regular feedback in the right way

Giving and receiving regular feedback has a massive impact on team performance and individual engagement but not everyone finds it easy.

Why is it important?

Regular feedback is an ongoing opportunity to learn from each other and keep growing. A strong culture of giving and receiving feedback can build trust and openness in your team.  

If it’s timely and constructive, feedback can also help you address and resolve conflicts within your team before they escalate.

Simply knowing what to expect from one another, helps individuals work on their performance and can ultimately improve your team’s focus and productivity.

How do I do it?

Psychologist and author Adam Grant shares 4 simple steps to give constructive feedback.

1. Explain why you’re giving the feedback

Recently, a team of psychologists was able to make feedback 40% more effective by prefacing it with just 19 words: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”

Rather than feeling attacked, now you feel like the person has your back and believes in your future. People are remarkably open to criticism when they believe it’s intended to help them. People will accept being challenged directly if you show that you care personally.

2. Take yourself off a pedestal

Negative feedback can make people feel inferior. If you level the playing field, it’s a lot less threatening:

  • I’ve benefited a lot from people giving me feedback, and I’m trying to pay that forward.”
  • “I’ve been studying great managers, and I’ve noticed that they spend a lot of time giving feedback. I’m working on doing more of that.”
  • “Now that we’ve been working together for a while, I think it would be great if we gave each other suggestions for how we can be more effective.”

All of these messages send a clear signal: I’m not perfect. I’m trying to get better too.

3. Ask if the person wants feedback

“I noticed a couple of things and wondered if you’re interested in some feedback.”

I’ve opened this way many times, and no one has ever declined. Once people take ownership over the decision to receive feedback, they’re less defensive about it.

4. Have a transparent dialogue, not a manipulative monologue

Imagine that you’re about to give feedback to an employee and you want to be transparent about what you’re trying to accomplish, so you tell them:  

“I have some negative feedback to give you. I’ll start with some positive feedback to relax you, and then give you the negative feedback, which is the real purpose of our meeting. I’ll end with more positive feedback so you won’t be so disappointed or angry at me when you leave my office.”

It sounds ridiculous! And yet that's what some managers do when they deliver a "feedback sandwich".


Now instead try:

“The presentation you gave to the senior leadership team this morning may have created confusion about our strategy. Let me tell you how I’d like to approach this meeting and see if it works for you. I want to start by describing what I saw that raised my concerns and see if you saw the same things. After we agree on what happened, I want to say more about my concerns and see if you share them. Then we can decide what, if anything, we need to do going forward. I’m open to the possibility that I may be missing things or that I contributed to the concerns I’m raising. How does that work for you?”.

You'll get much further thanks to Adam Grant’s expert advice!

Saberr makes it easy

Saberr normalises feedback conversations. We help managers to discuss performance with their employees regularly, as part of the day-to-day management of the team. That way, feedback is given in a timely and constructive manner!

Illustration of performance check-ins on the Saberr platform


3. Encourage career development conversations

As a manager, you have the opportunity to encourage your employees to explore their career aspirational and developmental opportunities.

Why is this important?

Today’s employees crave professional growth, with 87% of millennials ranking it as a very important characteristic of any role.

How well the people who work for you succeed says a lot about you as a leader.

How do I do it?

Timeframe: 1 hour

Number of people: 2, the team lead and their direct report.

Preparation: You should give your direct reports time to prepare for this conversation. Let them know that you’d like to have a one-to-one meeting to understand their career aspirations and whether you might be able to help them.

Template: Add the following talking points to the agenda for your next one-to-one and share it in advance.

  1. When have you been at your most energised and motivated?
  2. Do you have opportunities to stretch yourself in your current role? What are they?
  3. What would you like to be better at?
  4. What are you most afraid of and what’s it stopping you from doing?
  5. What are your career goals (over the next 1-5 years)?
  6. What else can I be doing to help progress your career?

Bonus points: Open doors for your direct report

As you’re discussing these talking points, consider how you can support your direct reports in achieving their goals.

  • What sort of learning opportunities can you provide for them within their current roles?
  • What sort of opportunities can you help them explore in different teams or different parts of the organisation? Can you introduce them to someone who is better able to help?
  • How can you help them prepare for career possibilities beyond your organisation?

Saberr makes it easy

Saberr provides managers with talking points and tips so that they can develop their employees’ careers with confidence. Saberr’s smart toolbox provides all employees with curated learning content so that they can develop their teamwork and management skills.

Illustration of Saberr's development conversation's feature

4. Set goals as a team

Why is this important?

Setting shared goals, as a team, is a great way to

  • encourage alignment and clarity on areas of responsibility
  • lift the team’s energy levels and motivate them
  • create more commitment and accountability what the team needs to achieve

How do I do it?

Timeframe: 1-2 hours depending on the size of the team. We recommend running this meeting every quarter.

Number of people: Ideally the whole team

Facilitator: Team lead.

Template: Add the following talking points to the agenda for your meeting and share it in advance.

  1. Reflect on the last quarter: Where did we fall short? What roadblocks did we encounter? What did we learn?
  2. What are you each proudest of accomplishing in the last quarter?
  3. What are the 3 key goals we should aim to achieve as a team in the coming quarter?
  4. What are the next steps towards achieving those goals? Who is responsible for each of them?
  5. What could happen that would prevent us from hitting these shared goals (e.g. resources, tools, budget) ?
  6. As your manager, how can I support the team in achieving these shared goals?

Talking points 3 & 4 will require the most time, as you discuss everyone’s ideas and refine them in order to define your team goals for the next quarter and the key steps to reaching those goals.

As you refine your goals, look out for these common mistakes.  

The 4 most common pitfalls in goal setting

  1. Too many goals. You are less likely to achieve any of them – aim for three.
  2. Can’t be measured. If you can’t track progress towards your goals, how will you know if you're succeeding?
  3. Activities masquerading as goals. Ask yourself whether each “goal” is really a desired outcome or just an activity. Otherwise you’ll end up with a glorified to-do list.
  4. Overambitious or not ambitious enough. Both are detrimental to the team’s motivation.

Bonus points: Encouraging participation

In this meeting, it’s important to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable to speak up. Here are some tips on how to encourage participation.

  1. Set clear expectations in advance. Share the agenda and the intended outcomes with everyone beforehand so that people have a chance to prepare.
  2. Start the meeting my setting the scene. Spend the first few minutes of the meeting giving everyone a quick run through of what is going to happen, even if that means repeating what’s already been shared over email.
  3. Take turns to speak. Some people in the team will feel more comfortable contributing their ideas than others. As the manager, it’s important for you to encourage participation from everyone by taking turns or by calling on specific people to share their thoughts.

Saberr makes it easy

Saberr provides managers with talking points and tips so that they can facilitate a goal-setting meeting with confidence. Our platform also gives the whole team visibility into the agenda so that they can prepare ahead, and visibility into the shared goals created so that they can stay on track for the quarter ahead.


Illustration of Saberr's oil setting feature

5. Reflect as team through regular retrospectives

Why is this important?


Using reflection to capture new knowledge or feelings after a project or task can help your team to continuously learn and improve. But looking beyond projects and building reflection into your workflow is a big part of being an effective team as it gives you the ability to learn and adapt quickly.

Without reflection, there is no learning.

Used regularly and done well, reflection can build trust and transparency, as your team gets used to talking openly about problems and successes. It’s a way to build trust in the team, and to draw out learnings and insights the team can build on in the future.

How do I do it?


Timeframe: 15 minutes per week or 1 hour per month, but stick to a regular schedule.

Number of people: Ideally the whole team

Facilitator: Anyone in the team, usually the team lead

Part 1. Individual reflection

Team members generally reflect best on their own. Before your retrospective meeting spend 10  minutes answering these three questions:

  • What’s working well?
  • What could be improved?
  • What have I learnt?

Try to get your team into the habit of reflection. Allow them time out to reflect on their week, prompt them to diarise 10-20 minutes of reflection time if they struggle to do it otherwise.

Part 2. Collective discussion

In the retrospective meeting, share those reflections with the group. Apply collective thought to discuss the insights and potential actions to take out of the session.

Saberr makes it easy

Saberr collects retrospective points and guides the team through a discussion, recording actions as you go. If you don’t have access to Saberr, use Miro, Trello, or the chat in Zoom to share everyone’s reflections and then systematically make your way through them allowing everyone to speak about their notes and recording actions somewhere you can all refer back to them later.


Illustration of Saberr's retrospectives feature


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Two male team members having a meeting