Very few people jump at the chance to have what they know will be a difficult conversation. Whether it’s delivering bad news (“we have to lay you off”), providing negative feedback (“your report had multiple errors and needs to be redone”) or breaking off a relationship (“it’s not you, it’s me”) most of us will go out of our way to avoid initiating that conversation. In fact, according to a survey by VitalSmarts, a leadership development firm, 70% of employees avoid difficult conversations with their boss, coworker or direct report. Thirty-four percent say they have put off holding a difficult conversation for at least a month, and 25 percent have put off holding a difficult conversation for more than a year.
Unlike wine, these conversations do not improve with age. In fact, when leaders put off having that difficult conversation with an employee, it can severely impact morale on the rest of the team, and may even result in the loss of customers.
Here’s an example. A company I was working with hired a new Sales Manager. Over time, this manager’s team began to complain about a number of things. He wasn’t cooperating with the rest of the team. He would get in people’s faces. He took credit for other people’s work. He would over promise to customers, and when he couldn’t deliver, he would blame others for it. The company owner was reluctant to speak with him or to take action. He didn’t want to admit he’d made a bad hire. I encouraged the owner to explore what was happening internally, and to consider that it might be impacting the company’s image externally. Following an investigation, the Sales Manager was fired. Not long after that, two customers called the owner to say that they had been on the verge of moving their business because of the way this individual had treated them. Bad behavior is bad for business!
If there’s a difficult conversation you’ve been avoiding, stop! Sit down right now and give yourself a deadline to get it done. Here are some tips to guide you through it.
Prepare for the conversation by asking yourself these questions:
- What is the issue? What is its impact?
- Do I have all the facts? Remember it’s important to focus on facts rather than conclusions, which may be wrong. Don’t assume that because someone is late two times a week that they’re lazy or don’t care. Give them a chance to explain.
- What do I want to accomplish in the conversation?
- How will I follow up after the conversation?
It’s also important to prepare for the emotional energy that may arise in the conversation – either yours or that of the other person. You may want to practice the conversation with a colleague.
Have the conversation.
- Schedule a face-to-face meeting, in private, at a time that will be free of distractions (e.g., not when there’s a crucial deadline pending).
- Enter the meeting with an open mind – remember, they may be totally unaware there’s an issue until you share it with them. Be prepared to hear their point of view/perception of the situation.
- Start by stating your intent. “I’ve noticed that_______. I’d like to hear your feelings about this and share mine.”
- Listen, acknowledge their input, and paraphrase it back to them to demonstrate understanding.
- Share your concerns/point of view and give them the opportunity to respond.
- Avoid the blame game.
- Work together to come up with a solution.
Follow up. One of the benefits of getting through these conversations is that often they result in a closer and more trusting relationship. Granted, there are times when a mutual solution cannot be reached, and that may be the solution in and of itself (as in the case of the Sales Manager). But when the conversation helps to clarify perceptions and initiate more open dialogues, it leads to better working relationships, happier employees, and an overall improved working environment.