Can We Talk…? How to Have a Difficult Conversation

October 11th, 2016 by

Every manager at one time or another has been faced with this awkward situation. The need arises for them to have a difficult performance conversation with one of their direct reports. In most cases, it has become clearly evident that the employee’s performance has dropped below the acceptable standard, and the issue must be addressed.thx7vghl8u

Yet, it is generally at this point that they begin to question how to best approach the matter. Because of a strong desire to be liked (a.k.a. high need for affiliation), many managers bury their heads in the sand and hope that the matter will fade away. The reality is that this is seldom the case.

Still other managers just feel too uncomfortable to give constructive feedback. To assist them, here are several practical tips that you can share with your management team:

Tip # 1: Don’t procrastinate

When you see performance issues, address them as quickly as possible. Putting them on the back burner will only delay the inevitable. If you allow the matter to pass, you may inadvertently send a signal that the performance is acceptable.

Tip # 2: Don’t dance around the subject

When they are about to have a difficult conversation, managers tend to try to ‘break the ice’ with some small talk. Fight that urge. The best approach is to avoid the small talk and get to the point. A good starting point is to immediately state… ‘This is going to be a difficult conversation.’

Tip # 3: Provide examples

Being too general when addressing a performance issue doesn’t give the employee enough to work with. In order for them to fully grasp the issues, give specific examples of their performance lapses. You don’t have to beat them over the head with every instance, but you do need to make it clear.

The use of ‘talking points’ allows you to keep focused on the issues at hand. By sticking to the script, talking points also help to reduce the likelihood that emotions will hinder your ability to deliver a clear message.

Tip # 4: Listen to the employee

This is a frequently overlooked aspect of the difficult conversation process. In their zeal to get their point across, many managers turn this into a one-sided monologue. It is critical that you give the employee the opportunity to share their thoughts. Sometimes all you will hear are lame excuses. Other times, there are valid points that mitigate the performance deficit.

However, if the employee becomes defensive, politely interrupt them, and return to your talking points.

Tip # 5: Clarify expectations

This is the ideal time to reinforce what the expectations are. If the matter is part of an ongoing performance issue, you would be best served to create a performance improvement plan. Either way, you’ll need to restate what the expectations are, and gain employee commitment to those expectations.

Another best practice is to keep a real-time log of such discussions (date, time, issues etc.).

Tip # 6: Set a follow-up meeting

The best way to ensure that the employee fully understands that this matter will not be ignored, is to keep it on their radar. During your discussion, arrange for a follow-up meeting in a couple of weeks. At that meeting, make certain to get a progress update from the employee and provide them with your observations.

Nearly all of us avoid having difficult conversations. To start providing important and necessary constructive performance feedback, contact CAI’s Advice & Resolution team today!

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Tom Sheehan brings 20+ years of extensive, broad based strategic, tactical and practical HR experience to CAI’s Advice & Resolution team.  He advises HR and other business leaders on talent management, organizational effectiveness, employee engagement, M&A’s, and employee relations.

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