The challenges of challenging

Karen Jaques is a Senior Consultant at Impact UK. Below she looks at the challenges of challenging and offers some quick tips.

One of the hardest skills to acquire as a manager is that of skilfully challenging people when they are not performing. Sometimes people genuinely lack awareness about the impact of their performance and simply telling them what you observe and the impact it's having on the business is enough to cause change. But feedback doesn't always work, in which case you need to make a more direct request, challenging them to change their performance.  

Here are some tips to help you make sure your challenging skills are up to scratch:

Start with managing yourself. Be really honest with yourself about how you are feeling about the situation. Can you separate the person from their behaviour, or have you muddled them up? Being able to distinguish the negative impact of someone's behaviour from their worth as a person is an important step before you proceed – otherwise you are at risk of damaging the relationship and increasing the chances of them taking it personally. If you're unsure about this, try rehearsing your message with someone you trust. Ask them for feedback on their genuine reaction to what you say and (more significantly) how you say it.

Do it sooner rather than later. Many of us avoid challenging people as we want to avoid the emotional distress it may cause them (and us!). This means that sometimes we defer being tough but fair with people, in the mistaken belief that it's kinder. This rarely works out as a strategy and can leave people feeling like you haven't been straight with them when they do eventually find out. 

Prepare your message. You need to prepare exactly what you're going to say, find a good place and time, then state the situation briefly and clearly, as you only have a few moments before they stop listening and start to react. Be clear about the gap in their performance and that you expect them to find a way to close it.

Be specific and have the evidence at hand. This is much easier in situations when someone is not performing at the required level and objective measures are readily available. When it's a behavioural issue you will need to sensitively gather information about the impact on yourself and others. 

Be ready to deal with an emotional response. When you challenge someone, they are likely to feel threatened and so a range of defensive behaviours can emerge. Stay as compassionate and respectful as you can towards them and wait until their emotions have subsided before attempting a more rational conversation. Once they have calmed down you can…

Ask them to take ownership of the situation. Sometimes, you can get through the difficult start and be so relieved that you forget to get commitment from THEM to do something about the situation. You may need to repeat your point several times until they finally stop defending and start to take responsibility. Stay respectful and assertive about the situation, but also be prepared to change your mind – you may not have all the facts.

Finally – remember that being challenging can lead to better working relationships. People feel safer when they know where they stand, so it's best to find your courage and challenge people when you feel it's needed. By treating an under-performer as an adult who is responsible for their behaviour, you can not only help them, but you may well help other members of your team when they see that you deal with people in a fair and square way.

Do you find it challenging to challenge others? We'd love to hear about YOUR experience in the comment box below.