Working in low-income communities, I’ve learned that leadership and management are not only skills that increase productivity, they can and should be empowerment skills as well. Dialogue, in particular, has become my go-to strategy for empowering the people who work for me. When I use it, I leverage my interpersonal relationships in favor of a greater good. The best way to do it, in my experience, is through performance reviews.
Performance reviews are heavy things. They cause the employer and the employee to put their professional faces on and exchange in tense conversation about the latter’s accomplishments and short comings. The important thing, in my experience, is that it take the form of a real conversation. Dialogue is important, but we might not understand why.
Traditionally, we ‘create a dialogue’ between managers and their staff to ensure the staff members are heard. Nobody wants to sit through a lecture from his or her boss again. I argue, however, that dialogue is so much more than that – more even than a chance to empower an employee, it’s a chance to open doors for people who grew up with less fortune than we did or who have less work experience than we do.
I am speaking specifically from my experience working in community development.
A unique opportunity was presented to me when I arrived in Honduras. My non-profit charged me with a small micro-lending project. I presided over a tiny staff and a tiny budget. Our work, though, was a lynch-pin service in the broader structure of the organization. It was up to me and my team to put a sustainable and effective working face on the organization. There was only one problem: I could only stay two years in-country.
My most reliable team member, with the most permanent position, was a young kid from the community itself. He was only nineteen at the time I arrived, but he’d been a tried and true Loan Officer for our programs for over a year. Coming from a tough neighborhood, he had removed himself from a difficult situation and tried to get ahead despite everything poverty had stacked against him.
By the time we met – management to staff – he had been well prepared for his current position, but he had never received a formal high school education and struggled to take on responsibility. The board and I agreed, however, that his potential was bigger than even he knew and cultivating his talents would pay off in the long run. We wanted to develop him professionally to help or organization become sustainable even after I left.
I started giving him performance reviews and here’s what I learned:
Reviews are more than just a dialogue. They are key moments in working relationships for leaders to empower their staff.
Like most common practices, our performance review covered four primary topics:
- Relations and Services
- Dependability and Accountability
- Adaptability and Flexibility
- Decision Making and Problem Solving
I scheduled these meetings on a biennial cycle. I took it slow and didn’t move on until I felt that topic was totally exhausted. The first review ran the gambit of his activities and character traits, and the discussions started tense and formal. We were discussing solutions to the same problems and the same topics, but it felt more like trading pleasantries than actual progress.
It wasn’t until the dialogue changed into a “choose-your-own-story” that the ball started rolling. Empowerment is when someone internalizes the power and the authority to choose, but more importantly, choose without fear of retribution or subjugation. For a boy from an extremely impoverished community, this was game changing.
Management Tip: Dialog them into better performance. – Click To Tweet
Here’s what “choose-your-own-story” dialogues look like: I would pose open-ended questions. I would ask him how I could do my job better; how the entire organization could be run better; find out what he would do if he were suddenly to assume my position. This created a dialogue where he was in control and not me.
My review sheet included a short introduction to the topic, and then a series of questions and blank spaces. I transcribed our conversations in a journalist’s hand, capturing quotations and exact wordings. At the end of each six month period the reports were less what I thought of him and more what he thought of himself. In the first review, the criticisms I had were received with head nods, explanations, and acceptances. Any fan of the Socratic method will tell you that’s not a dialogue, but as soon as the second review, I saw changes in his manner.
Each performance review spanned three days. We met for one hour a day, swimming through different problems and different scenarios. The more we talked the more comfortable he became. What should we do about his posture when visiting a client at home? How might he promote safety in the palm farms where the motorcycle thieves reigned? What could he do as an employee to make our communications run more smoothly with teams in the U.S.?
With each scenario, each time he explored his own shortcomings, the more dynamic his responses became. I gave him a grade, he gave himself a grade, and then we negotiated the final number. Suddenly he began meeting my criticism with rebuttal. He challenged my assumptions of his work, and not just the bad, but the good too! Even a light bit of praise was met with the word ‘why?’ Why do you think that about me? He honestly wanted to know what I saw in him. Suddenly, he was choosing to take the investigative role in his own development. The will to pursue his growth was transferred from me to him.
That is a dialogue – or at least what dialogue in the format of a performance review should be. Too often we forget that reviews are meant primarily for the development of the employee, not the development of a company asset. To accomplish this we need to turn to the human element and break down the barriers that hold us all back. Since no one confronts exponential barriers like the marginalized peoples of the world, I conclude that the performance review is an important tool for empowering low-income individuals.
By the end of my tenure in Honduras, both he and I anticipated his biennial reviews with excitement. We sat down smiling and joking about his progress rather than handling it like a fragile glass egg between us. Looking back now almost three years later, I choke up thinking about how far he’s come.
When I left Honduras he immediately stepped up and took my place. The training he had received from my predecessor and the personal, professional development we worked on together, helped him grow into the employee we needed and the man of whom we were most proud.
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About the Author
Jeff works on the ethical considerations of economic development and financial empowerment programs around the world. He spent two years running a microfinance operation in Honduras, and currently works as a financial empowerment coordinator in Boston. He holds two degrees in Philosophy and International Affairs.