How to conduct difficult workplace conversations
Francis Wade, Contributor
As the recession continues, the number of difficult conversations that managers must have each week has skyrocketed, but they have hardly got better at having them.
The result? More discord, stress and misunderstandings, which can only be resolved with a new commitment to continuous skill improvement.
In this respect, we in Jamaica are not alone. All over the world, the recession has forced managers into unprecedented confrontations with employees, customers, suppliers and stockholders. These 'new' conversations are sometimes unpleasant and may sound like this:
- Your performance needs to improve, or you'll be fired;
- I cannot pay you now;
- What can you do for me for half that price?;
- The board is losing confidence in your abilities; or
- We need you to shift to working part-time.
In my last column, I highlighted an increased level of callous managerial behaviour, which stems partially from a lack of the necessary skills to execute hard-to-have conversations.
Most people hate these conversations with a passion. They end up avoiding the situation and the person for as long as possible, hoping that the problem will resolve itself without confrontation.
Many managers also hide behind email, formal letters and written changes in policy. Dialogue is so risky that they avoid it at all costs, hoping to send hints through other, safer channels. Rarely do these indirect tactics work.
How can local managers develop the skills needed to initiate difficult conversations confidently?
1. Undertake Trial Runs:
Using videotaped feedback, I have trained hundreds of managers to have tough interactions. My experience supports the research: a manager who practises a difficult conversation and gets some feedback can dramatically improve his or her performance.
Imagine that you have been selected for a basketball free-throw competition to be held a month from now.
If you sink two shots in a row, you will automatically win $10 million. If you accept the challenge, you'll likely purchase a ball, find the nearest court, and show up every day to practise.
As obvious as this example might be, I'm amazed at how few managers will pull a colleague aside to ask for help in planning a challenging conversation. Frequently, managers believe that they shouldn't need to ask for help.
Those who do ask for advice sometimes don't get the help they need, because they spend too much time discussing abstract ideas. Instead, it's better to do as many role-plays as possible; they are the shortcut to better performance.
In our basketball example, you would spend most of your time shooting, getting short feedback, and reshooting rather than talking about theory.
2. Get Trained:
The number of senior executives who fail to execute these conversations successfully tells me that repetition without learning is no guarantee of improvement.
Structured workshops that rely heavily on repetition under simulated conditions can help managers internalise the best practices. Once they understand the core principles, it's much easier to prepare for a tough conversation.
There are also a number of books that are quite useful. I recommend Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler.
3. Refresh the Training:
Unfortunately, these skills decay over time. Under normal circumstances, a manager might easily not have a difficult conversation for a year. Then, during a performance evaluation period, he or she may need to conduct ten difficult reviews in the space of two weeks.
Managers' lack of practice quickly shows, but by then it's too late. The deadline must be met, and everyone suffers as a result.
Experienced business people know the impact these conversations have on profits, performance and motivation. Some would even say that companies' success depends on people's ability to conduct powerful confrontations and provide course-corrections, and no company can make progress without them.
Either way, it seems better to improve the odds with persistent practice than to wing it and hope that things miraculously work out.
Francis Wade is president of Framework Consulting and author of 'Bill's Im-Perfect Time Management Adventure'. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.