Critical conversations at work

Managing people is a skill

I’ve been a manager for over twenty years now, managing teams ranging in size from 2 to 263. One thing that I have learned is that if you want to do anything big then you need to work through other people to achieve at scale. And managing through other people to achieve goals is one of the biggest challenges when one shifts from being an individual performer to being a team leader or manager.

The skills of team leadership are not often taught formally to new managers, and they are often learned on the job. One of the scariest things that one is called upon to do as a new manager is to provide negative feedback to a team member. But it is important to know how to build the context around it so that it becomes part of the working relationship and not a surprise to anyone.

Critical conversations

Many problems in workplaces are caused by hesitation in initiating critical conversations. And this does not necessarily mean conversations that are focused on criticism of an individual or their work. It also means conversations that clarify the work to be done, issues and risks relating to the work, and any barriers to getting the work done.

“Know what you want. Clarity is power. And vague goals promote vague results.”
– Robin Sharma.

If teams are not having meaningful conversations with each other on an ongoing basis then, instead of small adjustments in course, it can evolve into enormous delivery and execution issues, and even escalate into an official performance management issue that can result in a job loss. Many times I have seen the performance management issue come as a complete surprise to the individual staff member involved, yet it is rarely a surprise to their team members. This is typically the result of the team leader being afraid to have a critical conversation, and the result of poor ongoing communication between the team leader and the team member.

“Often we go through an entire conversation – or indeed an entire relationship – without ever realizing that each of us is paying attention to different things, that our views are based on different information.”
Douglas Stone, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

This means that, as leaders, we need to create an environment where team members (including the team leader) communicate effectively about the work to be done, who needs to do what tasks, when they are needed by, and to what quality standards they need to be done in an objective manner.

Some techniques that I have used to create this kind of environment include the use of specific language. For instance, a team member will often give updates in terms of “I hope to deliver it by Tuesday”.  I make it very clear that hope is not a delivery strategy, and often reply that:

“We don’t hope. We provide a percentage confidence level it will done on time and budget, so what is your confidence level for this task?”

By shifting the language used by the team to talk about delivery and relating it to the reality of getting things done this creates an opportunity to discuss issues and barriers to getting the task done.

Performance management

Once this kind of environment is in place, in the normal course of things, there is little reason for the manager to intervene. However, when it becomes evident that a team member is unable to deliver assigned tasks at the required quality standard and to the relevant timeframe, the manager needs to intervene.

As a manager it is important to have ongoing conversations with team members. Performance issues rarely pop up overnight. They develop over longer periods and there are usually warning signs. If critical conversations happen early and often enough then the issues can be addressed and performance can be  improved. However, it is necessary to understand why people sometimes do not do what they are supposed to do.

Reasons why employees don’t do what they are supposed to do

The starting point for this is to work out why the person is not performing as required. Former Columbia Graduate School professor, Ferdinand Fournies,  interviewed nearly 25,000 managers asking them why, in their experience, direct reports did not accomplish their work as assigned. Here are the top reasons Fournies reported :

  1. They don’t know why they should do it.
  2. They don’t know how to do it.
  3. They don’t know what they are supposed to do.
  4. They think your way will never work.
  5. They think their way is better.
  6. They think something else is more important.
  7. There is no positive consequence to them for doing it.
  8. They think they are doing it.
  9. They are rewarded for not doing it.
  10. They are punished for doing what they are supposed to do.
  11. They anticipate a negative consequence for doing it.
  12. There is no negative consequence to them for poor performance.
  13. Obstacles beyond their control.
  14. Their personal limits prevent them from performing.
  15. Personal problems.
  16. No one could do it

Why Employees Don’t Do What They’re Supposed To and What You Can Do About It

It is always one of these types of issues that is at the root of poor performance. But lack of clarity around tasks and acceptable quality standards has been the most common reasons in my experience, and this is the most easy to remedy.

Healthy workplace conversations

This list above is a good starting point for conversations about performance. But performance is also a result of the team culture, high performing teams tend to experience a lot less poor performance.

Most of the issues listed by Fournies can be discovered by having meaningful conversations among the team about goals and objectives, and open discussions about roadblocks.

“difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and values.”
Douglas Stone, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

Don’t wait until someone is performing poorly, look out for the early indicators of problems and initiate conversations about the issues early. Provide relevant feedback, both positive and negative in timely manner – it is much better when the feedback is delivered close to the action.

It is important that it is a conversation too, that is, a dialogue between two human beings – with give and take. So listening as well as speaking is critical. Building a relationship with your team member is important too. If you have taken the time to build a relationship with your team member then the difficult conversation becomes somewhat less difficult.

Some good questions to ask at regular catchups

Here are some questions to prompt the types of conversations we need to have to build healthy and productive workplaces:

  • How are you going?
  • Are there any road blocks you need help with?
  • Is there anything you need me to do?
  • Who are your key stakeholders? What are their issues? How are your relationships with them going?
  • Does that align with the culture we’re building here?
  • Does that align with team/individual KPIs or should you be doing something different?
  • How do you plan to achieve that objective?
  • Are you on track with that?

Resources about difficult conversations

Carmichael, S. G. (2017, May 02). Difficult Conversations: 9 Common Mistakes. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2010/10/difficult-conversations-9-common-mistakes

Dowling, W. (2014, July 23). 7 Tips for Difficult Conversations. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2009/03/7-tips-for-difficult-conversat

Fournies, F. F. (2007). Why employees dont do what theyre supposed to do – and what to do about it. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Patton, B., Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2011). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. London: Portfolio/Penguin.

Riegel, D. G., Healey, T., Roberts, J., Knight, R., & Whitehurst, J. (2016, June 30). When to Skip a Difficult Conversation. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/03/when-to-skip-a-difficult-conversation

Rowland, D. (2016, April 14). What’s Worse than a Difficult Conversation? Avoiding One. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/04/whats-worse-than-a-difficult-conversation-avoiding-one

Sharma, R. (undated). The Giant Achievement Method [and free worksheet]. Retrieved from https://www.robinsharma.com/article/the-giant-achievement-method-and-free-worksheet