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6 Tips for Approaching “Tough” Conversations with Team Members

Unless you’re a super-human being, impervious to empathy and emotion, it is likely you do not look forward to having “tough” conversations with your team.

As a manager, it is likely that, from time to time, you’ll find yourself in a situation where you’ll need to engage in this type of conversation. Uh oh, better get prepared.

There is a common perception that conversations about performance, whether results, behaviour or attitude is the problem, are always confronting, uncomfortable and negative.

With this expectation, approaching them without structure and the right intention can leave us feeling drained, stressed and with a general sense of foreboding. But where in the rule book does it say that they need to be?

Fortunately, this can all be avoided by how you approach the conversation. When planning for and conducting your next tough conversation, the following steps are extremely effective for improving performance and strengthening relationships.

1. Leave Emotion at the Door

Unless positive, emotions have no place in any performance conversation, from any manager, at any time, under any circumstance.

If your intention when entering a conversation is to lay blame or take out frustration on someone, wait until you are less emotional. If you don’t, you’ll walk away feeling temporarily better, but you’ll damage the relationship and regret the long term consequences.

Begin with the end in mind – negative, reactive emotions are a road block to achieving positive change. If your team member is showing high emotion, chances are they are experiencing pain, fear or both. Let them talk it out without becoming defensive.

2. Identify the Issue and Pause for Discussion

Be clear on the nature of, and reasons for, your concerns. No one in yourteam is a mind reader – there’s a chance they are not aware you have been concerned about their performance.

Once you’ve identified the issue, givethe person space to discuss and respond without feeling attacked. The fact is, unless you work extremely closely with this person day to day, there could be a ton of things going on that you don’t know about.

Discussing an issue objectively does not mean you are permitting a bad attitude or poor performance, but it’s rare for both of these to change dramatically for no reason. Find the reason. The person might feel unsupported, feel like they’re in the wrong role, have an ongoing issue with a team member, or be unsure about how to proceed with a problem and act defensively rather than seeking help.

As a good manager, it’s your job to understand, support and grow your team – not to wield the punishment stick when things are not going to plan.

3. Focus on Solutions

Come to the table with potential solutions to the issue, and ask your team member to write down theirs.

By doing this, you’re showing you are committed to finding answers and moving forward to create positive change, as well as including your team member in the process. No one likes to feel like they are underperforming, so if you communicate your intention to resolve an issue without threat or blame, you’re likely to receive a positive response and reciprocal buy-in.

4. Agree on an Action Plan

Work together to formulate an action plan and agree on specific dates each action needs to be completed by. Follow up on the agreed date – and not a day later. Pushing back the follow-up date will send the message your plan is no longer important.

5. Continue to Have Conversations until there is a Win:Win Outcome

In the best-case scenario, this means achieving positive, sustained change. However, like any good relationship, both parties needto have their needs met – it can’t be good for one person and not the other.

If no change is being made to improve the relationship – on either side – things will only get worse. It might be that the partnership is just not the right fit. In this case, a Win:Win outcome might be supporting the team member into a different role internally, or into a different organisation. Don’t give up too soon, but don’t flog a dead horse!

6. Schedule Weekly 1 on 1 Sessions

Use this time to check in, plan, give feedback and encourage development. Maintaining regular contact in a weekly 1 on 1 session will provide time and head space to identify and discuss issues before they become a big problem. These sessions also keep your finger on the pulse with your team and will help you anticipate voluntary turnover. Fiercely protect this time.

Tough conversations don’t have to be negative, confronting or gut-wrenching – they should be viewed in your organisation as a catalyst for positive change, improved performance and a tool to strengthen relationships.

Don’t forget that, as a manager, it’s up to you to be the change you seek in others, so always lead by example. If you engage in constructive, effective conversations, your team will usually follow suit. If there are those who don’t, it becomes easier to identify the people who may not be the right fit.

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