Andy Dickson has been managing people, teams, and functions for 32 years. He is Head of Global Customer Solutions at Impact and has recently celebrated his 25th year working here. In this anniversary series, he will be sharing his top tips, thoughts and learnings about managing people better.
I want to focus on the part of management skills that are very often poorly executed in organisations. This is often described as "having difficult conversations" or sometimes covered in "performance conversations". I know this from first-hand experience and so many anecdotes from clients. At Impact, in the early days, we discovered through our work with a large multi-national client that people are as likely to be promoted as having performance issues tackled. It was easier for some managers to move under-performers than deal with a performance gap.
As a result, we created a solution that thousands of our clients have adopted, and it enables managers to have the confidence to deal with issues rather than avoid them. I call it "grasping the nettle". Whomever you manage, and whatever the situation, in my experience, there is nearly always a time that comes around when either you or your colleagues are disappointed or unimpressed with the contribution of a person you are responsible for. Most human beings like to be liked. Many managers have a very human, more modern-day tendency to forgive or ignore the early signs of underperformance, or quite often not to do a job the way it should be done or have annoying behaviour. So, the issue is overlooked or ignored, maybe not just once but on multiple occasions. This ironically creates a much more significant challenge.
If we don't challenge a behaviour or an underperformance, then essentially, what we are doing is condoning it or making it accepted. It is so hard to address an issue or behaviour if it has been tolerated or seemingly even encouraged.
My advice is "Grasp the nettle". As soon as you feel an awkward situation or early signs of something being awry, tackle it. I know this is easy to say and a lot less easy to do. For me, as a football fan, it's like the referee issuing an early yellow card. It's legitimate as a manager to address a concern; early on, it is acceptable to inquire about a problem you have, backed up with evidence. If the seemingly underperforming person has a valid reason for it, or you were mistaken, it is relatively easy to sort it out with little ill feeling. Even be ready to accept you were wrong.
Grasping the nettle is like correcting an incorrect compass reading just after setting off on a long journey. Leave it too long, and it's such a hard job to get back on the right track.
However, sometimes a behaviour or performance issue requires a significant challenge, and I have many times adopted Impact's PRO process for doing this using three simple steps:
Address the issue/underperformance directly with clear evidence. We call this the Problem statement. There is a problem, which is stated very clearly without hedging around the issue.
Expect a Reaction; human beings don't tend to enjoy or like being challenged on their performance or behaviour. There will most likely be an emotional reaction. Expect it, be sensitive to it but don't be derailed by it. Be ready for it and give space for it to happen.
Continue to address it (probably not in the first conversation as emotions will always be high after the emotional response has calmed down to acceptance or unacceptance but with less emotion). Address it until there is ownership from the person, where they accept there is an issue and own the fact that something must be done to address it. This ownership is critical, and at this point, you as a manager can use coaching techniques to work together on a plan of action.
These three steps can easily be remembered by our acronym PRO (Problem statement, Reaction, Ownership).
In my experience, this is the best way to operate. The people you manage will respect you for it, even if initially it doesn't feel like it. If you act professionally and state the issue clearly with evidence, you are simply doing your job and doing them a favour. You are giving them the chance to rectify or clarify the reason for a perceived problem involving them. If you don't address it, then either that underperformance undermines overall performance and results, or even worse, might lead ultimately to someone losing future opportunities.
I will never forget when a colleague gave me feedback on my habit of interrupting and talking over people. Initially, I was upset and defensive. Once I had time to think about it, I became embarrassed and accepted that the feedback was valid. I took ownership of the problem and addressed it by working hard not to interrupt and talk over people. That was twenty years ago, and I still thank my colleague for doing that; it allowed me to be a better version of myself and be a better manager and colleague.
Not addressing underperformance or sub-optimal behaviours is a mistake; it is in no one's interest.
My advice is: to grasp the nettle; ultimately, everyone benefits from it.
Read more about how to facilitate intentional, powerful conversation.
Read more on managing the human side of people.