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Two essential tips to handle difficult conversations

Two essential tips to handle difficult conversations

When dealing with such topics as performance or employee behavior, supervisors and managers would be wise to use the formula PCFA.

PRIVACY – Always hold critical conversations in private.  This shows respect for the person you are addressing.  It should never be the intent of a supervisor or manager to humiliate an employee – yet that is what can happen if problems are addressed in a public place.

Also, never address a group regarding one individual’s problem.  I knew a Director at a large telecommunications company who would send out a group email to his direct reports chastising them for missing a deadline.  The fact was only two of them missed the deadline.  So this seemingly time-saving method missed the mark in two ways.  One, the innocent employees who got their reports in on time resented being lumped in with the guilty.  Two, the guilty never paid much attention to the reprimand because it went to the whole group.

Although it is harder, and more time consuming, take the one or two offenders aside and address the issue directly and privately.

CURIOSITY – Always remain curious.  When we go charging into a situation assuming we know the facts (and you know what they say about someone who assumes!), we miss the critical step of letting everyone have their say.  Again, this goes back to respect.  It only takes a little more time to ask questions, explore the situation and listen to the other person’s point of view.

In this step, it’s also important to steer clear of absolutes such as “Always” or “Never”.  If you’re truly curious about another person’s motives or the situation that occurred, you will use tentative language.  Instead of “you promised”, try saying, “I thought we agreed.”

You will also remain naturally curious if you give people the benefit of the doubt.  Unfortunately, this is the opposite of what we usually do.  We usually assign a negative motive or intention to another person’s behavior.  This is where the next step comes in.

FACTS – It is very important when dealing with employee situations to stick to the facts.  One VP of an insurance company needed to give an employee performance review that he was dreading.  (Side note: There is no faster way to lose an employee’s Discretionary Effort than by delaying or postponing performance reviews and subsequent pay increases!)  He called me for advice on how to handle the review.

When I asked him to tell me about this employee, he said things like, “she is lazy and overly comfortable in her position.”  The problem with using words like these in a performance review – besides immediately triggering defensiveness from the employee – is that they are subjective.  Lazy in whose opinion?  What is lazy to one person may be hard-working to someone else.

I asked him to come up with specific, fact-based behaviors that he had observed or witnessed this employee taking (or not taking).  He struggled at first but then remembered a specific incident when she finished one project mid-day but didn’t come and tell him she was done until the end of the day.  He assumed it was because she didn’t want to be handed a new assignment for the day.

When I asked him to separate the facts from his opinion, he could see that the only fact of the matter was that she had finished mid-day (recorded on timesheets) but didn’t tell him until the end of the day.  I then walked him through the curiosity step.  Why would an otherwise good, competent employee do this?  If we give her the benefit of the doubt, what other reasons could there be?

He could see that he wouldn’t know until he asked.  And that is what he did.  Turns out in this instance, this employee took the opportunity in the afternoon to catch up on some paperwork that had been past due.  Hardly the actions of a “lazy” employee.

Stick to the facts.  Facts are irrefutable behaviors that you can see or hear.  Anything else is just added opinion or assumptions.

AGREEMENT – Once you’ve had a crucial conversation with someone, it is essential to come to some agreement before walking away.

In the example of the VP in the last email, he asked the employee at the end of the review if in the future she would come to him when assignments were done so that he could determine if he had something more urgent for her to complete than past due paperwork.  She agreed to do that and they haven’t had a problem since.

If you’ve gone through the first three steps, then there should be new information you have gathered or things that have come to light that you didn’t know before.  This is the reason you need to agree on a new course of action.  Everyone involved in the discussion needs to agree on what’s changed, what’s expected of them, and who will do what, by when, if appropriate.

Missing this critical step leaves people in the dark and paves the way for more misunderstandings.  When everyone has agreed to a course of action, it is much easier to hold each other accountable in the future.

Holding difficult conversations in a respectful, timely manner is one of the most important aspects of any management or supervisory position.  These four steps can help guide the conversation to the most successful outcome.