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Four Tips for Having Tough Conversations

Tough Conversations

As a manager of any sort, sooner or later you are going to need to have a tough conversation with one of your employees.  Maybe a person was late to work, and it is impacting service.  Or, maybe some staff aren’t achieving the goals which will impact the company’s monthly revenues.  Whatever the situation, the quicker you address it the better for all parties.

So, you know you need to address the situation, however every time you do the employee gets defensive or the actual issue never seems to get resolved.  How do you go about having a successful meeting that determines the root cause and puts in motion an action plan to keep everyone moving forward?  Below are four tips to help you achieve the results you need while building trust and rapport with your employees.

tough conversations

Let’s start by defining what is a tough conversation.  In my opinion any conversation that you need to share a break down in trust or a gap in expectation and that is emotionally charged is considered a tough conversation.  A person missed a major deadline making your final project to your boss late – you need to address the missed deadline.  An employee isn’t showing up on time after lunch break impacting the service level to the customers and makes excuses about it when asked – you need to discuss the gap in expectation.

With the knowledge of what type of conversion we are addressing, there are some steps that you need to go through in order to ensure a successful outcome.

1. Prepare.  Anytime the outcome of a conversation could create negative emotions from either party, it is critical to prepare ahead of time.  Not preparing could leave you in a position where you allow emotion to dictate what or how things are said which would be counterproductive to the outcome.  To prepare for the conversation cover these three items:

  • Why do I need to have the conversation? Make sure you fully understand the tangible impacts of the actions.  Using the late employee example again – yes, you might be frustrated that the employee just isn’t doing what you want them to do.  However, if you take this approach in a conversation are you really working towards a solution or are you venting about the fact that the employee isn’t doing what you, as the manager, has told them to do?  Look to the facts.  What is happening because the employee is late?  Customers are needing to wait longer to receive service which is resulting in higher complaints; co-workers are also being inconvenienced by needing to delay their lunch which is impacting the teamwork; processes are taking longer to have completed due to the staff shortage which is impacting the timely completion of work.  Stick to the facts when figuring out why you need to have a conversation.
  • Is it just me? This might seem odd considering in the above section I said to stick to the facts; however, you do need to look internally to see how the action is impacting you. What I mean by this, let’s assume you work in an office that isn’t impacted if an employee is late returning to lunch. The work continues to be accomplished, and the co-workers aren’t feeling frustrated by their teammate’s tardiness.  Additionally, the employee hits goals, completes tasks in a timely manner and is the first to volunteer for overtime.  But it still irks you that the employee is late because you would never consider doing that and in fact you consider it being disrespectful.  So, does this really need to be addressed or do you need to adjust your thinking?  In this situation, it might be better to continue to do some soul searching as to what is really making you frustrated before you address the situation with the employee.
  • What do I want the outcome to be? Before diving into the conversation, think through what you need the outcome to be. Do you need the employee to change their behavior? Do you need to gain greater understanding of what the root cause is for the employee?  Or is this the opportunity to ensure the expectations have been clearly defined?  The quick and easy answer is that you need the employee to stop/start/or change something.  To achieve this clarity, you will need to understand how you both got to this position and what is needed to move forward from here.

2. Questions. Assuming this is the first time you are addressing the situation with the employee; you need to prepare some questions to find the root cause and possibly dive deeper to figure out what is happening.  You have been observing the outcome of the behavior (IE: the impact of the employee being late), however, at this point you don’t know what is causing it.  Time to put on your investigator’s hat and start to figure out what is happening.  Go into the meeting with a few primary and secondary questions that you might want to ask depending on the response from the employee.  A few ideas to get you started:

  • So, this is how I am seeing the situation, can you help me understand your point of view?
  • What impact do you think this is having?
  • Tell me more about that?
  • Can you help me understand?
  • How do you think we can improve this situation?
  • What do you feel will happen if we don’t address this situation?
  • Are there aspects of this situation that you feel we cannot talk about openly?
  • What steps do you think need to be taken?
  • What resources do you need from me?

Note: I started this section with the assumption that this is a first-time conversation regarding this issue.  If this issue has continued after the first conversation, a portion of the approach will need to be handled differently.  For example, you would want to focus on why the action steps weren’t accomplished and the broken trust that this has caused between both of you.

Now that you have completed the initial preparation for the meeting, it’s time to talk with the employee.  Set an appointment that will allow you to have uninterrupted time to review your concerns. Determine the best location for the meeting; for example, an office with glass walls for the other staff to watch the conversation would not be ideal.  Also, consider if it would be conducive and possible to move the meeting to a neutral location – not your office or the employee’s office but a conference room or even a coffee shop.  During the actual meeting you will want to follow these next two steps.

3. Listen to the employee. During the meeting, listen with the intention to understand where the employee is coming from. Don’t let your mind wander or start to think about how you might respond.  Listen with your ears, your eyes and your head to everything the employee is stating.  Back to the example of the late employee, you might find out that the employee is going to their mother’s home during lunches to help take care of her.  Or maybe the employee has been bringing back lunch to the office so the other employees can stay close by to accomplish tasks for the big project.  In other words, what you might have been observing has a deep-rooted cause that can now be addressed.  You wouldn’t necessarily know this information if you didn’t listen and ask the questions.

4. Follow Up Meeting. Now, you have an understanding what the root cause of the situation is, and the employee has provided some action steps that will improve the situation. You have been taking notes throughout the conversation and all parties have a clear understanding of the expectations.  The next step for you is to create a follow up meeting.  During the conversation, set a follow meeting date for both of you to touch base on the progress of the action plan.  After the meeting, email a summary of the conversation to the employee to ensure you are both in agreement of the expectations and confirm the follow up date.  Complete any action items you agreed to and provide the needed resources.  Also, ensure the documentation of the conversation is added to the employee file that you keep.  Before the follow up meeting, pull out the notes to refresh your memory of what was agreed on and the anticipated results.

A few reminders about having tough conversations:

  • Sometimes regardless of the planning, the conversation goes off course. Do your best to keep it focused solely on the topic.  If there are several other items that come up, create a parking lot document that you can review with the employee after the one topic is resolved.
  • Emotions can run high. Throughout your planning, hopefully you have been considering how you might respond emotionally based on the direction of the conversation (and how the employee might respond emotionally).  It will be important for you to keep control of your emotions throughout the conversation.  If at any point the emotions from either you or your employee get to be too much, always know that you can take a break from the meeting.  It can be hard to think clearly and to find a resolution if emotions take over the conversation.  In that case, the best thing is adjourning the meeting and schedule another time to reconnect and start over.  While this might seem like a negative action, it is the best course to take in order to calm the situation down.
  • Just like everything else in life, practice makes perfect (although, I’m not sure there will ever be a perfect when it comes to tough conversation). The more you prepare for and plan these conversations the easier it will become.  Also, you are demonstrating key communication skills to your employees which will help build trust and rapport.

The hardest part of any manager’s job is to have these tough conversations, however, if handled properly it isn’t something to dread.  In fact, you might realize better ways to be a leader through the process.  To help you feel more prepared for these conversations, the following books are great resource:

Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler

How to Say Anything to Anyone by Shari Harley

The Speed of Trust by Stephen M.R. Covey

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