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Management Development

Confronting the need for confrontation

Confronting the need for confrontation
Published: June 1, 2021
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One of the hardest skills to learn as a manager is that of challenging underperformance. Sometimes people genuinely lack awareness about the impact of their behaviour, and simply pointing it out to them is enough to spark 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 ensure your challenging skills are up to scratch:

  1. Start with managing yourself. Be honest about how you feel about the situation. Can you separate the person from their behaviour? Being able to distinguish the negative impact of someone's behaviour from their worth as a person is vital – otherwise you risk causing upset and damaging your relationship with them. If you're unsure, try rehearsing your message with someone you trust. Ask for honest feedback on what you say and, more importantly, how you say it.

  2. Do it sooner rather than later. Many of us avoid challenging others to avoid the emotional distress it could cause. As a result, we sometimes defer being tough but fair with people in the mistaken belief that it's kinder. This rarely works as a strategy and can leave people feeling that you haven't been honest with them when they do eventually find out. 

  3. Prepare your message. You need to prepare exactly what you're going to say beforehand. When you’re ready, find a good place and time, and outline the situation briefly and clearly – you only have a few moments before the other party stops listening and starts to react. Be clear about the gap in their performance and that you expect them to find a way to resolve it.

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

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

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

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

Karen Jaques is an Addociate at Impact UK.