I had an employee who was consistently underperforming. He was not responding to coaching or corrective action measures and was actually flaunting his underperformance throughout the organization. I was trying to avoid and ignore the glaring issues, but my boss insisted I address the problem. At the time, I was annoyed with him for interfering with my blissful ignorance. Later I realized just how valuable his mandatory push was. I was a wreck, filled with dread at the prospect of having a difficult conversation. I knew what I needed to do. I just didn’t want to do it. At first I resisted, made excuses, and tried to buy time. Not surprisingly, the problem with the employee got even worse. The employee’s behavior, and my lack of response, was noticed by other employees, and before long, I had two and then three employees underperforming, not responding to corrective action, and flaunting their underperformance. My boss began having intense conversations with me about my performance.
I knew it was time to buckle-down and act. I practiced my key points. I was conscious of my tone and body language. I was ready. I went into the first meeting with the employee, and things did not go well. I had been so focused on my message that I was not prepared for his defensive response – I assumed my thoughtful and intentional feedback would be appreciated, and that he would understand my key points. Because I wasn’t prepared for his anger, defensiveness, and blame, I was caught off-guard and left the room without accomplishing my mission. Yikes! Now what?
I learned a valuable lesson: We can’t choose the response we get from those we confront, but we can be better prepared.
Prepare yourself for tough conversations
In the outstanding book, Fierce Conversations, by Susan Scott, Scott provides deep insight into how to prepare for a fierce conversation, and how to handle a response you don’t like. She doesn’t mince words about where the real issue is. In my case, I discovered the real issue was me. Yikes! My thoughts, my approach, and my inability or unwillingness to be honest with myself, had me accepting, justifying, ignoring, and denying actions that I knew were not in alignment with our company’s core values. I had not been willing to face the truth of what was going on, and I didn’t have the courage to address it on my own.
After reading the book and taking stock of where I was and what I believed, I took action. I had three very effective conversations. Did the employees all respond as I wanted? No, but I knew I was grounded in what was best for the company, and surprisingly, I found that the employees and I all found the conversations to be deeply gratifying and highly effective. One employee chose to leave the company, and the others chose to stay and help our organization grow.
Managing isn’t always fun and games.
As a manager, you’ve got to handle conflict, confrontation, difficult conversations, sharing tough feedback, holding others accountable, managing expectations, and so much more. Whew! Having tough conversations can be emotionally draining, time consuming, and after all that, you still may not make your key points. You still might be misunderstood. You still might not see the behavior change you seek.
But if you don’t have the courage to have what Scott defines as “fierce conversations,” things won’t get better. Ignoring the issues doesn’t make them go away. Exploding or attacking can harm the relationship, hurt productivity, and even expose risk areas for the business.
In Fierce Conversations, Scott provides a framework and many practical examples of how to voice your opinion, have those difficult conversations, and challenge others to perform – all in a professional and effective way. Pick up a copy of Scott’s book, Fierce Conversations and let me know how you’ve used it to make a difference in your business.