Four Conversations of Supervising


Pinball management is foundational to supervising people.  As soon as you open your car door in the parking lot, you might as well brace yourself for the little metal ball to hit you in the rear and propel your day dramatically from one direction to the next, until, with no energy left, you free-fall into your chair for a quick breath… before your metal ball drops back into the pocket, and you hear the plunger-spring being pulled back again.

To survive in this type of environment, you need to be prepared to react to each bump, bell, and whistle.  Supervisors at the top of their game know how to facilitate four specific types of employee conversations, and they raise their score by intentionally applying them daily in a variety of situations.  When you build a good template for these four leadership conversations, you can adjust them slightly to fit scores of situations.

Setting Expectations:

Supervisors lead expectation-setting conversations all day long.  A few of these are one-directional, but most of them should be two-way, so the employee offers input on the expectations.  You may recognize this communication as on-boarding new employees, feedback on observed activity, goal-setting, project or task assignments, direction changes, and especially the conversation creating an employee’s plan for their improved performance.  The core objective for each of these is to clarify expectations and to set the trajectory for employee success.

Confirming Performance:

These conversations confirm that you and your employee are on the same page concerning their current skill and performance status.  It is a coming-together to evaluate their progress compared to the previously set expectations.  The core of this conversation is used often in regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings to review standard performance stats or realities; it is also used as follow-up to check progress on improvement or project plans.  It is essentially the same in yearly performance reviews, since there should be no surprises for either party in that conversation.

Encouraging Career:

Discussing employee career plans in a way that encourages their skill and behavior development is great, but you must also ensure they realize they own these professional targets, and they are responsible for driving the learning.  Though, if there is opportunity for any current application of their new knowledge or skills, you may find budget to help them.  These conversations are sometimes formal, mandated meetings, but the following casual exchanges can be even more powerful in spurring employee initiative and enriched contributions:

  • Follow-up questions to stimulate the value of a recently-completed learning activity
  • Introductions to informal mentor relationships with other leaders or peers
  • Sharing of a current experience, learning, or exposure opportunity you see as aligned to their career goals.

Verifying Engagement:

Vital conversations that confirm an employee’s satisfaction status or current confidence in their contributions are often seen as frivolous or optional.  These chats can encourage your employee to offer discretionary effort, and you gain insight into issues that limit contributions to the bottom line.  These are often casually formatted conversations that may feel like simple curiosities to employees.  They can also be effective as structured requests for opinions or perspectives openly aimed at learning both facts and feelings from your people.

It is sometimes tempting to try for double points in the pinball game of leadership by combining these conversations.  It is wise to try and keep them separate.  For example, when you sit down to set expectations for an improvement plan, your employee should already have ‘recovered’ from the performance conversation where you discovered what’s causing their current issues.  As you closed the earlier discussion confirming their poor status, you probably scheduled the conversation to create a plan together – a plan that sets expectations for their success.  Even if the conversations are only separated by an hour, this allows you to create a more hopeful direction.

If you feel like you live in a pinball machine and you’re the little metal ball, please call and see how we can partner to help you be better equipped for the bumps and bruises that can result!