Solutions Focus Approach

by Paul Z Jackson

Performance conversations

Solutions-focused approaches are very valuable when engaging with people about their performance. It is about putting positive difference to work.

This section draws primarily on the work of Gunter Lueger, professor at PEF-University for Management in Vienna, who specialises in developing solutions-focused management instruments.

Constructive conversations about performance at work can make a huge difference to personal and organisational life, impacting on workplace relationships, organisational culture and the bottom-line productivity of the organisation.

The performance conversation or appraisal is an integral part of management, and many organisations rely on this process for making decisions about staffing, defining training needs, providing feedback and setting the direction for future performance. Yet research shows that many people leave performance conversations less motivated than when they went into them.

Often, performance reviews take place only once a year and are structured around some form of rating system where the person is given a number (say, between 1 and 5) or a grade (A, B; or poor, average, good, excellent). It is often assumed that such ratings are a good way of achieving objectives and improving performance. Yet surveys (Bernardin 1995:464) have shown that

  • Most of the people who are rated below the highest value on the scale disagree with the rating they are given
  • A high percentage of those that disagree with the rating they are given are less motivated and less satisfied with their job after the performance review
  • Most of these dissatisfied people have little or no idea how to improve their performance.

So, using ratings in this way can de-motivate people. It can also lead to conflict. If a manager rates a worker as ‘poor’ and the worker disagrees, there is immediate friction.

This traditional approach to reviewing performance tends to focus on what has happened in the past. And from that past, little attention is paid to what can be usefully taken from past performance and applied to achieve future results.

Putting positive difference to work

One definition of the Solutions Focus approach is ‘putting positive difference to work’. We suggest that by giving people a static rating, such as ‘poor’ or ‘good’, when talking about their performance over a period of time, you are neglecting variations – significant positive differences that could usefully be put to work.

Take a moment to reflect on your performance at work over the past year. Would you be able to say it was always ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ or ‘poor’ or would you agree that your performance has fluctuated during the year? Perhaps sometimes it’s adequate, at other times excellent and so on.

These variations can be examined to identify resources, next steps and clues for how to maintain good performance and how to improve over time. When examining the ‘positive difference’, we are highlighting the times when things went well, when people performed at their best. The skills, resources, behaviours and attributes uncovered here can then be applied to areas where performance is not so good.

This is shown in the diagram below:

*adapted from G.Lueger, Solutions Focused Rating SFR: New Ways in Performance Appraisal

Gunter Lueger devised the solutions-focused rating system which enables a performance conversation to be more collaborative and engaging by putting these positive differences to work.

His method invites managers to work more constructively while still using their existing performance management forms. A manager could begin, for example, by inviting Helen, the appraised worker, to reflect on her performance over the past year, then to take 100 points and distribute them amongst the existing boxes, which may offer ‘Poor, OK, Good and Excellent’.

In the table below, Helen has decided that 40 per cent of her performance over the past year was good, 20 per cent excellent and so on.

10 %
20 %
40 %
20 %

There may be a temptation now for Helen’s manager to continue the performance conversation by exploring the ‘Poor’ section. The manager might assume that people will improve their performance most effectively by analysing weaknesses first and attempting to fix them.

Focusing on excellence

However, we may make more progress by choosing instead to focus on what we want and on building our strengths to help us achieve this.

Observe the behaviour of Tiger Woods, hailed as the greatest golfer of our time. In 2002, Woods was rated number one in the world on ‘Green in Regulation’ shots, the measure of how many shots you are expected to play before getting your ball onto the green. He was also rated 62nd in the world at ‘Sand Saves’, your history of getting out of a bunker and into the hole in two shots (or better).

Woods could have chosen to focus on his perceived weakness and practice his sand saves. Instead, he worked on his swing until it was so strong and predictable he would land on the green and not in the sand. He didn’t attempt to improve his sand saves. In 2007, Woods was still leading the world ranking in golf, though he had slipped down to number 83 in the ranking for sand saves. Here, Woods made his weaknesses irrelevant by developing his strengths.

Picking up on this idea of working on strengths, the SF performance conversation begins by exploring the ‘Excellent’ category, with the manager asking resource- based questions to elicit detail of achievements and top performance, to provide clues and motivation for further such attainment.

In this conversation (as with scaling), we

  • Accept the person’s rating
  • Ask about what worked in each instance
  • Collect counters
  • Give affirms and amplify resources.

Once we have exhausted ‘Excellent’, we can move onto ‘Good’. By the time the conversation has reached ‘Poor’, we shall have a better sense of how much time, if any, to devote to discussing improvement in this area. If we choose to do so, it is now on a basis of a rich selection of resources, counters and success stories. As with Tiger Woods, it may make more sense to grow a worker’s strengths than to try to fix their ‘weaknesses’.

These will be more collaborative conversations, focusing on agreed good performance – with ratings unchallenged by the appraiser – and with discussion centred on how to sustain what’s going well and identify further opportunities for progress.

The table below shows some of the differences between this approach and the traditional approach to performance interviews:

Traditional approach in appraisal interview Solutions-oriented approach in appraisal interview
Standardised approach to the process Flexible application which can fit each person
Goal setting, if any, is vague Precise description of what is wanted
Concentration on the person’s deficits and weaknesses Discussion of strengths and successes and starting points for improvements
Tendency to make the person fit the job Possibility of adapting the job to fit with the person’s strengths
Discussion of failures in the past Future and goal-orientated
Raters make suggestions as to what the person should do Rater and person being rated work out the changes together
High expectations of performance conversations: ideally all problems will be solved and major progress made Concentration on small feasible steps that encourage change
Appreciation – if present at all – is a tool and not an attitude Appreciation as an attitude is palpable in the discussion of common, everyday success
Average performance can lose useful distinctions Highlights useful differences in performance  –  ‘putting positive difference to work’

SF and other assessment tools

You can apply solutions-focused approaches to many popular assessment tools. For example, 360-degree evaluation processes typically assess people’s competencies on a scale of 1-5 from the perspective of the line manager, the person being assessed and their direct reports. Taking a solutions-focused approach to a discussion of the results would involve first exploring the competencies where people scored well rather than the areas where they scored low.

This kind of rating can be used in any process concerned with reviewing and improving performance, such as

  • A manager reviewing the performance of a direct report
  • A coach and client discussing the client’s progress
  • A project team discussing how they are performing against the project plan
  • A consultant evaluating a project with a client.

Solutions-focused rating will allow you to ‘put positive differences to work’. By using this rating system, you can have collaborative, constructive and motivational discussions about performance with your direct reports, your manager, colleagues and customers.