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Difficult Conversations Part 1

Still the bugbear of L&D professionals the world over…

Why do our managers not give feedback?  Why do they not face upto those honest, tough or difficult conversations?  Whatever we call them, and many businesses have tried their share of variations, feedback and performance conversations are still a challenge for managers.

Here we look at why interventions to date may not have worked and share some top tips that are working well for us and our clients.

First, we need to understand what is holding people back from giving feedback.  Notice how most eLearning sessions on feedback or workshops covering the topic, dive into “how to give feedback.”  We all instinctively know some good practice ideas like be specific, tell them at the time etc, yet when it comes to it, we avoid the difficult conversation.  This means that simply teaching more “how to” tips is unlikely to help, as the fear of the other person’s reaction stops many managers from entering into the discussion.

We therefore find that the most effective feedback workshops start with What stops us from giving feedback?  This first question raises anxieties about how the other person will respond and concerns about others’ perceptions of us as managers.  Many managers will say something like, “I don’t want to be seen as a nag,” or “I don’t want them to quit,” or simply, “what if they don’t like me afterwards?”  There is power in getting these concerns out in the open, knowing that we’re not alone and then working through these concerns.

Then we can ask, how can we overcome those obstacles?  For some people this is about letting go of needing to be liked all the time, whilst for others it’s about acknowledging that it’s highly unlikely someone will immediately quit the first time they have a difficult conversation.  And if they did quit, would it really be such a bad thing?  Particularly given the fact that so many managers share stories of holding onto a so-called high performer who constantly upset the rest of the team, then one day that person quit and the whole team’s performance and morale sky-rocketed.

With all of this helpful thinking out in the open and managers realising it would be better for them to act than to not act, there is a shift in the room to, “ok, but how do I do it?”  It’s as though we have now earned the right to talk about the how-to practical tips, in the context of their real concerns and anxieties.

What do we need to do to have an effective conversation? 

We start by sharing stories of how difficult conversations have been derailed when any of the following aspects have been missing:

Awareness

Agreement

Action

In one example, a colleague was not aware of the impact they were having on the team by only ever making criticisms or highlighting concerns in meetings, so they did not respond to requests to be more positive.  In another example, a colleague was aware of the way they spoke at a hundred miles an hour during presentations, but they believed that this added to their energy and positive impact, so did not agree that anything needed to change.  In another, a colleague could see that the way they kept interrupting peers during the day was distracting and unhelpful following a difficult conversation with their manager, but there was no firm action agreed or review put in place, so nothing changed.

Everyone can share their own stories – they have seen this happen time and time again, when someone clearly disagrees that something is an issue, or a lack of review means behaviour has returned to normal.  And this really makes managers consider whether or not their colleagues are aware of the problem.  It’s so easy for us to fall into the trap of labelling people as lazy, rude, inconsiderate, thoughtless, without considering that the person may have no idea of the impact they are having.  And if they did know, they may well want to change.

So then the group comes up with ways to have conversations that ensure all three aspects are in place, followed by a review to check there has been progress.

We’ve given examples here of pretty basic stuff about people’s behaviour, but the same approach is equally effective for conversations about the need for more strategic thinking, for discussions about a lack of career progression, for questions over the leadership of a department and consultation over vision.

Because one of the main concerns managers have is how the other person will react, we then go on to explore how to prepare for that too.  We’ve put that into a separate article here.  Enjoy!