- Having difficult conversations is an essential management skill which can be learned
- Ask the other person for their thoughts of the situation, and be prepared to really hear them
- Be clear about the issue and what you need for it to be resolved
- Reinforce that you will work together on a solution – take a team rather than adversarial approach
- Close the loop with an email confirming what was said, to avoid future misunderstanding or dispute
Detailed Analysis Whether you are a first-time manager, or an experienced manager with years of practice, having difficult conversations is something few people enjoy. Like other management skills, though, it becomes easier with an effective plan in place – and with practice. Difficult conversation scenarios can include things like under-performance, employee absence, communication issues, and more. The first step when contemplating a challenging conversation is to define the problem with a little more clarity. Ask yourself key questions, such as:
- Did I clearly outline my expectations and what outcomes were required? If not, ensure this is done first, and give the other time to respond or refine their work.
- Is this the first time this has happened, or is this a recurring issue? A first-time infraction may require a gentler approach and more generous assumptions – after all, everyone makes mistakes. If you are dealing with recurring under-performance, on the other hand, a firmer stance might be appropriate.
- Is there something going on in this person’s life that could be influencing the outcome? Team members are people – with families, health concerns, and other stresses at play in their life. While it’s reasonable to expect people to perform their roles effectively, empathy can go a long way towards resolving problems, not to mention building trust.
Now it’s time to prepare for a difficult conversation. When considering how to formulate difficult feedback, use the following steps:
- Ask them for their feedback about the situation “I wanted to talk to you about the umbrella project you are working on. How do you think things are going?”. This gives your team member an opportunity to take ownership of the situation, as well as reveal circumstances or challenges that you are not aware of. By asking for their feedback, you demonstrate that you are on the same team, which can make the rest of the conversation easier to have.
- Be clear and specific. Share information about the performance you’ve seen. By relying on facts “On the second umbrella prototype, you confirmed that the leaking issue hasn’t been fixed” rather than opinion and emotion “I’m really annoyed that you didn’t bother dealing with the leaking issue!”, the focus is understanding the problem, and finding solutions, rather than arguing about fault or encouraging a defensive stance. It also demonstrates that you have taken the time to understand the problem, building your credibility in their eyes.
- Clearly state that you need to see improvement. Set clear expectations and define what a resolution to the problem looks like “I really need to see some improvements in the next few weeks. I will need to see what concrete steps have been taken to resolve the leaking issue.”. Set team members up for success – the goal is to have them achieve what needs to be achieved.
- State that you are going to work on it together. As a leader, you are responsible for enabling your team members’ success. Ask what you can do to support them in getting the job done. “Do you have any ideas on what would improve your work outcomes?”
- Follow up with an email summarizing your conversation and agreed–to next steps. This ensures mutual understanding and provides an opportunity to clarify or ask questions. If matters remain unresolved, it also serves as documentation of the steps you have taken to resolve this issue, should more drastic action be required.
Finally, make a difficult conversation easier with these tips:
- Give feedback early when performance is an issue. Problems are more easily resolved when they are small, and people appreciate a course correction earlier in the process – it shows you are looking out for them and their success.
- Be firm but compassionate. Kindness is key, but true leadership demands honesty too.
- Take notes with dates during and after meetings. This helps to keep future conversations fact-based and provides documentation should additional performance management steps need to be taken.
Difficult conversations are a challenging – but necessary- part of team management. Giving open and direct feedback shows you believe your team member is capable and has a genuine desire to deliver results, and it provides them vital information to help them improve, grow and succeed.