7 Steps to Make Difficult Employee Conversations Easier

Let’s face it, no one likes to have difficult conversations because, well, they are difficult. Unfortunately, putting off important conversations only makes them more difficult and can often damage relationships in the process.

One of the most important jobs of an association leader is to give employees coaching and feedback. And while not always pleasant, a well-planned conversation can go a long way in improving engagement, attitude and performance.

Many managers aren’t comfortable providing constructive criticism, pointing out when a promise has been broken or standing firm when a deliverable has not been met. I often hear association managers complain about employee performance, but when I ask if they have had a conversation with the employee, more often than not I hear, “I am waiting for the right time.” The challenge is that the right time rarely comes, and the issue is swept under the rug, causing resentment and frustration for both parties.

When providing feedback, remember to make it F.A.S.T. First, feedback should be FREQUENT. Both positive and constructive feedback should happen regularly. Not only do these conversations build trust, but having them more frequently makes them less uncomfortable. Don’t wait for annual reviews. In the moment coaching and regular feedback in one-on-ones provide a great opportunity to build employee confidence and performance.

Next, make sure the feedback is ACCURATE. Be careful not to rely on hearsay. Take time to explore the issue fully. I once had a manager call me into her office to scold me for being late. Apparently my cube mate voiced concerns after I had been late several days in a row. The manager reprimanded me without even asking why. I was volunteering on a planning committee for work, and we met every morning for one-hour to coordinate an upcoming event. Make sure you have the facts.

Feedback should be as SPECIFIC as possible. Rather than, “You shouldn’t be so blunt,” try something along the lines of, “In the meeting Monday morning, your comments came across a little strong. Let’s talk about some ways to provide the same feedback in a way that will be more openly received.”

And last but not least, feedback should be TIMELY. Deliver feedback, both positive or negative, as close to the actual event as possible (ideally within 24 hours). This provides an opportunity to really reflect on what happened. When too much time passes, feedback is much less effective.

While there’s no magic formula or recipe, following this seven-step process will make any difficult conversation a little easier.

Step 1: Define the Problem. Describe the behavior and be as specific as possible. Example: Rather than saying, “you’re always late,” try “I’ve noticed you have been coming in later than usual. For instance, on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, you were over an hour late.”

Step 2: Describe the Perception or Impact. What impact is that behavior having on you, the team, or the organization? Sharing a wider impact helps put the problem in perspective. It is often helpful to focus on “the perception” the behavior is creating because perception is reality. In addition, unless you have evidence to the contrary, assume positive intent.

Step 3: “Tell Me More.” Allow the person to vent. Example: “Tell me about what’s going on.” It is important to listen without arguing, justifying or defending yourself. Be quiet. Sometimes the silence makes us uncomfortable, and we don’t give the person a chance to process or compose his/her thoughts. This is often the most important step.

Step 4: Agree on the Problem. If you both have different perceptions of the problem, or both don’t agree it is a problem, moving forward can be a challenge. To gain alignment around a solution, you first have to agree on the problem.

Step 5: Brainstorm Solutions. Listen openly and avoid criticizing or judging ideas. It’s important to help make the employee feel heard and part of the solution, even if they arrive at the same solution you already had in mind. The goal of the conversation is to get it right, not be right.

Step 6: Agree on a Solution. Rather than focusing on the past, focus on solutions moving forward. Discuss the positive outcomes and negative consequences for making a change.

Step 7: Follow Through. The only thing harder than a difficult conversation is having the same one twice. Make it a priority to follow-up and provide feedback. People repeat behavior that gets attention. Catch your employee doing something right and take the time to provide praise and positive feedback.

Make it a practice to have regular meetings or one-on-ones with your team members. Ideally, one-on-ones should be happening with each direct report monthly. This will set the tone for an open-dialogue, making any conversation easier. The best way to improve motivation and engagement is to build a strong relationship built on trust, and one of the best ways to build trust is to provide regular, honest feedback.

Article presented by Leadership TSAE sponsor: AT&T Hotel and Conference Center

Author Anne Grady is a professional speaker, corporate leadership consultant, and expert in personal and organizational communication. She helps organizations, and the people in them, work better. Anne is the best-selling author of “52 Strategies for Life, Love and Work,” and her newly released book, “Strong Enough: Choosing Courage, Resilience, and Triumph.” For more information, or to book Anne for your next event, visit www.annegradygroup.com.
Photo credit: Rawpixel/Shutterstock.com

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