CIPD: Civil servants perform better when managers focus on strengths not weaknesses

New research carried out with Civil Service Employment Policy builds on case against “guided distribution” but shows performance can also be boosted by new management techniques

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By Tamsin Rutter

21 Nov 2017

Civil servants whose managers use appraisals to build on strengths rather than fix weakness are likely to perform better, according to new research that supports the removal of controversial “guided distribution” performance management systems.

A series of trials by the CIPD, carried out across three departments and in partnership with the Cabinet Office Civil Service Employee Policy team, found a 9.7% increase in civil servants believing that meetings with line managers helped their learning and development after managers attended workshops on conducting strengths-based conversations,

It also found a 7.4% increase in those who said these meetings improve their performance. 

The research – the first randomised controlled trials that have focused on strengths-based performance management in the UK public sector – was conducted with civil servants at HM Revenue and Customs, the National Offender Management Service (now HM Prison and Probation Service) and the Valuation Office Agency.


Jonny Gifford, report author and 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.”

He told Civil Service World that in HMRC and NOMS, the CIPD – the professional body for HR and people development – had conducted a one-off half-day workshop to train managers in using a coaching, strengths-based approach to performance conversations.

The intervention at the VOA, meanwhile, was more holistic, involving a big communications plan, more extensive training and changes to HR policy, including dropping guided distribution – Cabinet Office guidance which required managers to rate a set proportion of their staff as either having "exceeded" expectations, "met" them, or told they "must improve.

There were also control groups across the three organisations and staff were asked to respond to a survey both before and after the interventions, so the CIPD was able to conduct a comparative study.

Results were more pronounced at the VOA, particularly in terms of the value in strengths-based conversations for improving staff assessment of their learning and development.

Gifford said this showed the value of a more comprehensive approach to improving performance management. “Rather than focusing the conversation on holding people to account and saying where they are in terms of performance ratings, the focus is on your current and your future performance,” he said. 

“What you need to perform better, how can we help you – so it’s a focus on learning and development, the here and now and the future rather than a long, tiring conversation about justifying your past performance and where that means you would be on a ratings scale.”

The report recommends the actions taken by the VOA be adopted elsewhere in the civil service, such as a simplified approach to objective setting, removal of guided distribution and a short form to guide regular performance.

But Gifford also stated that a one-off intervention can also have impact, and countered the viewpoint he had come across throughout conducting the research that removing guided distribution is the only meaningful approach to improving performance. 

“If you think about the position that HR leaders or managers or L&D managers are often in, they may not have the license to make a massive, wholescale change programme… Is it worth making a start with something more discreet? And our answer is yes,” he said. 

Until now there has been a lack of evidence into strengths-based performance management, partly, Gifford told CSW, because the approach has been applied largely to wider organisational development but not at an individual level, and partly because randomised trials are also uncommon in this area. 

The CIPD found just one existing robust study in this area, a randomised controlled trial in a Canadian private sector organisation.

Some departments including HMRC overhauled the contentious guided distribution method in April this year, with the other departments expected to follow suit.

The CIPD worked with 23 units in NOMS – including two London prisons, non-London prisons, probation service units and the central HR directorate – and 14 units in HMRC across a range of functions, specialisms and job types, from call centre workers to specialist tax investigators.

Some 8,843 people were involved in the trials across the three organisations, and the CIPD received nearly 3,000 responses to its two surveys. Several hundred managers were coached in workshops. 

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.”

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