If you own, or run, a business with people in it, you will have been faced with the prospect of a challenging conversation. Heck—I’ve got the best team in the world, and I have to have them regularly. The wonderful breadth of human values, views and personalities means that there doesn’t even need to be something going majorly ‘wrong’ at work; sometimes we just need to have a conversation that we know might be difficult; it’s inevitable.
Like many things in life, it’s the ‘how’ that matters. They way that you, as a business leader, handle a challenging conversation has a huge impact on the person you are talking with, as well as your wider team, and business. No pressure! But it is important to get right.
Challenging conversations can have great outcomes, but they don’t end up being amazing accidentally. Here’s my two-part framework, so that when you do have ‘that conversation’ with an employee, you can feel confident that it’s all going to turn out well.
1. Building the right environment
Know and care
Take the time to truly get to know your people, and what’s going on for them. Understand what good performance from each person looks like, so you can recognise when something’s not right. This will help you navigate future conversations with context, and care.
It’s important to create a culture of safety which will enable your people to be their authentic selves, whilst being open and willing to try new things, share new ideas and challenge the status quo. In times of stress or of perceived threat, humans unconsciously shut-down the ability to reason and recognise alternative solutions. However, with an established environment of trust, you can avoid stress reactions, and move positively through addressing problems.
Any person you employ or manage should be crystal clear about what you expect to deliver, and how they’re progressing on this journey. This will help you to get results that you (both) want, and the employee will also be happy that they are delivering good work, it’s a win-win! No surprises means that you don’t squirrel away feedback and then lump it all on your employee at once. Provide constant feedback; the good, and the constructive, so there are no surprises.
2. When the need for a conversation arises
Always be in service of your people.
This means, place your employee at the heart of the conversation. How can you, as a leader, best support them to deliver in their job, and achieve their objectives? Ask yourself if you really need to raise this issue? What are you hoping to achieve from the conversation? If you’ve got good answers to these questions—go for it. If not, take the time to reconsider.
Seek to understand
Find out what is going on that has led to the need for this conversation. Make this an opportunity to practice active listening; ask questions, pause, closely listen to what is being said, as well as what is not being said. What other factors may be impacting your employee’s performance or behaviour?
If something goes wrong in your team, you take ownership. The buck stops with you, take responsibility and then unpick why this has happened: Does an employee require more training? Do they need to do more iterative testing and learning? Or is this a recurring theme and they should be on a performance improvement plan? Whatever the underlying reason, take ownership for the mistake, and work to rectify it. Use it as a learning opportunity for yourself, as well as the team member involved, and understand how to avoid these in future.
This is important. I’ve saved it till last, but really you need to do this at the start: Check in with yourself before having a tough conversation with an employee. You need to be in the right headspace to be present, openly listening, responsive, patient, empathetic and kind. If you’re not in this headspace, reschedule the meeting. If not, you risk damaging the trust and rapport you’ve built if you’re not in the right frame of mind to manage the conversation well.
Set up for success
The way that you address issues in your business will make a big difference to the culture of your organisation, and also to your reputation as a leader. Both matter in terms of the ongoing success of your business. Through preparation, reflecting on the situation and checking your intentions, you’re much more likely to be set up for a successful interaction, that supports the employee, you as leader, and your business.