What should you be talking about?
That challenging conversation you’ve been meaning to have?
Are you avoiding a challenging conversation with a co-worker? Keep finding that you’re just too busy to deal with it? Or maybe you keep telling yourself that the problem will eventually work itself out, if you give it enough time?
Don’t worry, you’re in good company with this dilemma. One of the toughest parts of being a leader and a manager - or even a parent, friend or partner for that matter – is being brave enough to initiate those difficult conversations. Whether you need to address gaps in performance, tackle inappropriate behaviour or resolve conflict between team members – challenging can often be a very uncomfortable business indeed.
Let’s look at what might be getting in the way;
Five reasons we avoid difficult conversations
1. You don’t want to be disliked
No matter how well prepared you are, you can never be sure how the conversation will play out – the other person’s reaction to what you have to say can often be a showstopper. Fear of resentment and even or retaliation are commonplace, as is the concern that things will quickly get personal.
2. You don’t like confrontation
Many of us are conflict-avoiders, and for good evolutionary reasons! You might well know that a challenging conversation is the only way to begin to change things for the better, but your instinct may be telling you otherwise!
3. You’re partly to blame
Having to face up to the fact that you may have played a part in creating the issue can feel like an admission of failure. It may not be you that's under scrutiny on this occasion...but deep down there might be a nagging sense of guilt that this has all happened on your watch? Perhaps you neglected to give timely feedback about the problem at the time? Or you failed to establish clear performance standards in the first place? Those doubts are often hard to shift.
4. You’re afraid of looking foolish
What if you initiate the conversation, but then don’t know how to continue with it? We have all been in situations where confronting someone with the problem has only made it worse, particularly where the other party has a very different view on the matter.
5. You’re not sure whether you’re the right person to do it
Challenging poor performance is usually something that’s initiated by you as the responsible manager – you’ve noticed a need for a change and want to do something something about it. Yet things aren't always so clear-cut, especially in less hierarchical cultures that encourage leadership and decision making at all levels. When challenging across or upwards, things can feel ambiguous. On what basis do you have permission to initiate the conversation? What’s the likelihood of you getting out of your depth?
Prevention is always better than the cure – here are some handy tips for getting it right in the first place:
Avoiding the need for challenging conversations
1. Establish clear performance expectations from the outset
If you’re going to hold someone to task for underperformance, then it’s important to establish clear performance standards up front and make these clear to all involved from the outset.
2. Give constructive feedback in a timely manner
The most useful feedback is specific, timely and change-orientated. Giving feedback as near to the moment as possible allows people to adjust their performance to meet your expectations. Dealing clearly with any issues as soon as they arise can often close a performance gap before a more formal performance intervention is required.
3. Praise positive achievement when you see it
We’re not talking about delivering the eponymous ‘s**t sandwich’ here, where negative feedback is surreptitiously hidden between bland platitudes, rather it’s about making a conscious effort to acknowledge achievement, as well as challenging underperformance. It’s all too easy to take things for granted when the going is good, but giving praise where praise is due helps to build recognition and tops up the ‘emotional bank account’. If someone is already feeling unappreciated, chances are they are primed to react negatively to any challenge from you.
4. Don’t just rely on formal appraisals
Encourage a culture of day-to-day feedback, coaching and challenging – downwards, across and upwards - with an attitude of “we’re in this together”, rather than “you work for me”. Consider equipping your colleagues with the knowledge, skills and understanding needed to hold these quality conversations themselves. As leaders, our job is to develop talent for the long term and it really is a year round conversation.
Making challenging conversations easier
1. Be prepared
Do you homework and to make sure you understand enough about the issue at hand. When outlining the performance gaps, be to ready use specific examples and facts.
2. Minimise the negative reaction
Present the problem in a few simple sentences. Be clear, factual and specific, clearly stating the effect the under-performance is having on the business. Strive to be clear that the conversation is intended to be helpful and indicate your willingness to support. Close with a statement inviting change or offering alternatives.
3. Don't get personal
Remember that Challenging is very different to Criticising. You are challenging the performance, not the person as an individual. Structure the conversation around performance and don’t allow yourself to get distracted. At the same time be ready for a reaction – you will very likely provoke one.
4. Listen & respond – rather than react
Listen carefully to the reaction of the person you are challenging. Park your own agenda temporarily and keep your emotions in check. Staying calm and controlled will help de-fuse resistance and allow for a relationship to be maintained.
You may find it helpful to reflect back what you're hearing from the performer - the facts, their emotions and needs. Use questioning and listening to better understand their reality and gain their acceptance.
5. Recognise when the performer accepts responsibility
Resilience and persistence are useful qualities when initiating a challenging conversation. Equally important, however, is the ability to recognise ‘acceptance’ by the performer. Encouraging someone to accept responsibility can take time, and you may need to present the issue to them in different ways to get to this point.
When challenging, you ‘own’ the problem and your aim is to transfer this responsibility to the performer. If you are able reach agreement that a performance gap exists, the performer becomes the person who wants to do something about it. The conversation can then switch to a coaching session and you’re well on your way!