Strategies for critical, tough conversations with your employees
By Maurie Cashman
Good leaders are able to handle difficult and tough conversations. The success of your Ownership Transition Plan depends on it. You will have to have tough conversations with your advisors, your employees, customers, suppliers and your successor(s). You will need to have these conversations to preserve and grow the value of your business. Most people do not like handling conflict but, if you fail to do so, you may lose key employees and the business value they represent.
â€œLeadership to me means duty, honor, country. It means character, and it means listening from time to time.”
— George W. Bush, 43rd U.S. president
Colin Powell on Managing Conflict
â€œBeing responsible means sometimes pissing people off,â€ said retired four-star general and former U.S. Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell.
Powell further says, â€œGood leadership involves responsibility to the welfare of the group, which means that some people will get angry at your actions and decisions. Itâ€™s inevitable, if youâ€™re honorable. Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity: youâ€™ll avoid the tough decisions, youâ€™ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted, and youâ€™ll avoid offering differential rewards based on difÂferential performance because some people might get upset. Ironically, by procrastinating on the difficult choices, by trying not to get anyÂone mad, and by treating everyone equally â€˜nicelyâ€™ regardless of their contributions, youâ€™ll simply ensure that the only people youâ€™ll wind up angering are the most creative and productive people in the organization.â€
This is a critical point that you have likely experienced. I had a great relationship with a former manager that was based on an agreement that we would not let disagreements fester, but would get issues on the table immediately and address them head on. We disagreed (and still do) plenty. But we always respected each other, talked through the issue, and, even if we did not agree at the end of the conversation, we agreed to support our agreed-upon position once we left the room. This was a unique situation and one that I never took for granted. I used the same policy with my team and we always had one of the top performing teams in our organization.
What are some uncomfortable situations or behaviors that you might have to confront with proÂfessional feedback as a manager? You may encounÂter an employee asking for a raise, an employee complaining about anotherâ€™s performance, an employee bringing comÂplaints about the behavior of another employee to you, issues of sexual harassment, bullying in the workplace, accusations of theft or other malfeasance, or an excellent employee telling you that he is thinking of leaving for another job. Someone may even question and try to undermine how you are running your own company!
Tactics to use and to avoid
It is important to hold people accountable and not confronting difficult situations is not holding people accountable. The key to managing this is in the communication approach. You need to craft a conversation in which the relevant inforÂmation and its meaning to you and the other party is shared. Practice active listening techniques. Speak persuasively but not harshly, listen intently, and be empathetic. It is best to not delay. Instead, just do it. Schedule a time to meet to discuss the matter to make it less threatening. There may be some apprehension, but this removes the surprise and allows some time for preparation.
Consider what is going on with the other party as you talk. This is likely going to be uncomfortable for both of you. Donâ€™t beat around the bush but explain how you plan to conduct this conversation and that you want to understand what the issues are that need to be addressed. Be straightforward, but donâ€™t downplay or oversimplify the issue. Be sure the other person ends up giving it sufficient attention. It is important to provide the other person with context because you want them to understand the importance of changing or not changing their behavior.
Listen and react by remaining civil. The other person may become combative, threatening, use accusatory language or resort to silence and shut down, but it is your responsibility to address these tactics by not becoming combative in order to reach the outcome that you want. Directly address the tactic by callÂing it out. This lets them know that you recognize what they are doing, and that you are going to bring them back into the conversation. Point out that you recognize their behavior and feelings, and that you are going to remain focused on achieving a desired outcome.
Keep your eye on the goal. Staying focused on your desired outcome makes you less likely to fall into a negative ploy by the other person trying to control the conversation. Donâ€™t be drawn into anger or argument. Be prepared for this and try never to go to old reliable: â€œBecause I said so.â€ Donâ€™t escalate the situation and you will find the outcome to be more desirable. Itâ€™s the Dragnet thing:â€ just the facts, maamâ€.
Think about the important issues you are likely to be dealing with in preparing for the conversation. What problem needs to be addressed? Will the other person agree on the problem? What outcome do I want?
The book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High, by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler, discusses what these authors identify four power listening tools: Ask, Mirror, Paraphrase and Prime. Ask to get things going; Mirror to confirm feelings; Paraphrase to acknowledge the otherâ€™s position; Prime if youâ€™re getting nowhere.
Ask includes questions like: What do you mean? What is going on? What are your conÂcerns? What is your opinion on this? Do you see it differently?
Mirror is to describe how the other person looks or acts. This may be difÂferent from what they say. Mirror statements are: You seem angry at me. You donâ€™t sound fine. You say you are OK but the tone of your voice suggests that you are upset.
Paraphrase is to repeat what you think the other person said. For example, â€œWhat I heard you say is that you are upset becauseâ€¦â€
Prime is a tool to use when you think the other person has more to say but is holding back. Use your best guess at what the other person is thinking and putting it out there to talk about. For example, â€œAre you thinking â€¦?â€ Once you get the other person to share their thoughts, then you can move the conversation forward to address the issue and reach an outcome.
The point of the difficult conversation is to create a change and a desired outcome. Mutually reach an agreement for change during the conversation. Put the agreed upon changes in writing with defined steps to be taken, when they are to be completed, how they will be measured and a time to follow up on progress. Ensure your desired outcome in the other person by either positively recognizing it at a future time or by taking further disciplinary actions. Make this clear in your agreement.
Colin Powell reminds us that â€œCommand is lonely … You can encourage participative management and bottom-up employee involvement, but ultimately the essence of leadership is the willingness to make the tough, unambiguous choices that will have an impact on the fate of the organization. Iâ€™ve seen too many non-leaders flinch from this responsibility.â€
Know that when you have a difficult conversation, you are being a responsible leader, and you are showing you care enough to hold a difficult conversation. You are not only protecting the value of your business â€“ you are increasing it by modifying behaviors to support your ultimate goal of making your employee more valuable and in turn, increasing your companyâ€™s value.