A Quick Exercise to Manage Effective Performance

One of the best performance management exercises ever developed is the real-time comparison. It’s simple and it’s effective (probably has something to do with why it is “one of the best”). The exercise positions a thoughtful discussion between a manager and a direct report. The two of them sit down (physically or virtually) and the manager initiates the conversation by saying something like:

“Write down the five most important things you are working on right now in order of priority.”

While the employee is thoughtfully complying with the request, the manager makes his/her own list (i.e., the things they think this employee should be working on in order of import). When finished, the two compare lists. Here are the primary options associated with that reveal:

  1. They are completely aligned! At this point trumpets usually sound, warm feelings flow and each person takes a turn telling the other how truly awesome they are before attention is turned to proactive troubleshooting and/or discussion of potential obstacles looming on the horizon.
  2. The things on the lists are aligned, but the sequence of priorities differ. This usually results in a quick conformational discussion on the elements of agreement followed by a more in-depth discussion/negotiation of what the sequenced list should look like moving forward.
  3. The manager has things on his/her list that are nowhere to be found on the employee’s. When this happens, eyebrows typically raise, one or both parties make sounds and say words that effectively describe the impasse (e.g., “mmmmmph … wow!”). Since prioritizing sequence would be an exercise in futility, an exploratory discussion typically ensues:
    • How did this happen?
    • Where did we get off track?
    • Let’s go back to “square one” and figure out what belongs on this list, in what order and why!

Now, please, don’t simply take my word for it, but this exercise usually takes about three minutes (generating the lists). And, regardless of the outcome you wind up with, guess what the manager and the employee wind up doing? Communicating — transparently — about performance priorities! Beyond that, Situational Leaders can extend this exercise as a mechanism of pinpointing the performance needs of the employee for each thing identified. Again, in real time, the manager and the employee rate the perceived skill level and level of motivation the employee has for each task:

“On a scale of 1-5, with 1 equating to ‘NOVICE’ and 5 equating to ‘EXPERT,’ assess your skill level, and for performing this task … then use a similar 5-point scale to assess your confidence, commitment and motivation.”

expert scale
Confidence and commitment scale

Following suit, the manager assesses the employee on each scale for each task. When finished, the two compare once again. Here is what the manager usually learns as a result:

  1. The manager’s influence approach is a match (once again, “que the music!”). The approach the manager has been employing for this thing (e.g., Empowering; Collaborating; Directing) is deemed appropriate based on the assessments and needs to continue.
  2. The manager is overleading. The manager is providing a level of guidance and structure that exceeds the employee’s ability to perform the task (e.g., Directing a highly motivated expert).
  3. The manager is underleading. The manager is providing the employee with “degrees of freedom” that are not aligned with the reality of the employee’s skill (e.g., Empowering an insecure novice).

This exercise will probably take longer than three minutes (especially for five things). But guess what the manager and employee will wind up doing? Communicating — transparently — about the performance needs of the employee!

Now, on the off chance you read this and muttered to yourself:

“There is no way I have time to do all that!”

Consider how much more time you would have in the long run if you did!


  1. List the five most important things you are currently doing
    • Using the scales identified above, assess your skill and confidence/motivation for each thing
  2. Approach your manager and ask him/her to do so for you as well
    • Discuss/negotiate priorities and your manager’s approach with you for each thing