Difficult Conversations

Feedback is always about future behavior. It’s NOT about the past, because there’s nothing we can do about the past.

Can I be honest about something that I hate about leadership?  I do not like having hard conversations with people.  I just don’t.  Maybe that means I’m weak…I don’t know…it’s just reality for me.

That said, if I’m going to lead & manage people well I have to have these awkward talks.  If I don’t then they don’t grow, I become frustrated with them and they don’t even know it!  One of the worst leadership practices is NOT having difficult talks with people.

So in order to lead well I’ve had to create a system for myself.  That may sound odd…but it works for me.  If you’re the type that can slip into bad conversation practices such as: being too emotional, getting defensive and/or just not having a tough talk with someone, maybe this will help you.

Now, here’s the system that I use to actually lead the conversation:

1.  ASK. Simply start the dialogue like this, “May I give you some feedback?” This allows you to make sure it’s a good time for them and that they are open.  If they say no, ask when will be a good time.  Don’t wait too long, tackle it soon.  This also opens the door for you to speak straight.  People know what “feedback” means.  It can be both good & bad.  Key Words: “May I…”

2.  Describe specific BEHAVIOR. Don’t attempt to guess at the “motivation” for the behavior. Discuss the actual behavior you saw, heard, or read. You cannot see someone being lazy or having a poor attitude. You can see them being 15 minutes late 3 of the past 5 days. You can see documents with spelling errors. Seeing these behaviors only allows you to infer their attitude. Tell them what you saw, hear or read, not what you inferred. Avoid labels.   Say, “When you roll your eyes in meetings when others talk; when you say ‘you guys don’t get it’; when you come late to meetings and are texting during it; When you stomp off because you don’t get your way…” Key Words: “…When you…”

3.  Describe the IMPACT of the behavior.  Adults understand that actions have consequences.  Once you have described what you observed, tell them what you felt or what impact it had on the company, project, or team. A phrase that captures this thought is, “When you do this, here’s what happens” or, “When you do this, I feel…”Key Words:  “Here’s what happens…”

4.  Discuss NEXT STEPS. When the feedback is negative, and the person has verified that they understand what they did and its impact, it is time to work out how to change the behavior in the future. At this point, they must really own their efforts. If I simply impose a change, they will be less likely to enact the change. Ask open-ended or leading questions to start this process, such as: “What do you think you can do in this area?” “How should we approach this?” “What ideas do you have to improve here?” Key Words: “What are you going to do about this?”


5 responses to “Difficult Conversations

  1. Kevin,

    This is good stuff.

    I think we may also hurt our ability to have tough conversations well by overhyping them in our minds (on the giving or receiving side). As such, we can actually end up creating a culture where conflict or potential of conflict is avoided because of the negative value we assign to it…maybe because or a poorly executed #1 (maybe it wasn’t the right time) or a divining of someone’s intentions.

    Anyway, really good.


  2. This is exactly like Apple’s employee feedback model 🙂 Good stuff.

  3. Travis – Thanks for the comment. I think you’re right. Something I read recently says that “People aren’t as fragile as we dream them to be. They can handle the truth.”

    Caroline – See…Apple should hire me in their head office! I could handle living in Cali!!!!

  4. Not wanting the hard conversations is not weakness, but often is a genuine concern to not hurt someone else. Of course, allowing people to perform at less than expected levels is doing them no favor.

    The keys are #’s 2 & 4- you never want to make statements about intent, attitude or circumstances; you want to address objective observed behaviors. You then want to agree upon corrective measures, with measurable goals and timetables. In a former workplace, we called it a “plan for improvement.”

    #’s 1 & 3 make the process easier and facilitate compliance.

  5. Hal — thanks for your comment, wisdom, & experience.

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