Turning a Tough Conversation into a Productive One (repost)

It’s the beginning of the year, which for many people means some sort of annual performance appraisal.  These look different for everyone these days; some are more traditional, some are focused on goal attainment, some are focused on future development.  And then there are those companies that just review the feedback collected through the year by programs that replicate the social media forum.  But no matter what platform, design or process you use, hopefully you are sitting down with your employees and sharing feedback and planning for the new year.  But not all of these will be easy or “happy” conversations.  So below are 5 tips to help make any conversation, no matter the feedback, productive and engaging.

1) Be Honest.  No one walks into a tough conversation wanting to deliver difficult feedback (or feedback you know they are going to disagree with).  But you do more of a disservice if you talk around the feedback or try to sugar coat it.   As hard as it may be to deliver (or hear) it will only help the person in future.  How can they change the behavior or meet their goals if they don’t hear what they should be doing differently?   Take it out of the workplace for a minute.  If you made a dish that people thought was too salty, don’t you want to know so you could adjust the recipe?  Or if a professional athlete should change their swing to hit more home runs, their trainer or coach will tell them so they can be the best they can be. Set the tone of the conversation with an opening line like, “I hope you know that I am dedicated to your development and success and that I respect you as a professional.  Because of that I have some honest feedback to give you.”  Like I said, the initial reaction may still be of hurt, sadness, frustration, anger, etc.  But hopefully it will get you to the solution oriented part of the conversation sooner.

2) Take Time to Know What is Important to Them Before You Walk into the Room.  Below, I lay out some reasons why people react emotionally to tough feedback.  It’s important to know, as best you can, what is important to them before you walk into the room.  Are they trying to get a promotion, are they hoping for a raise, are they looking for new responsibilities or the chance to work on harder projects?  Does public recognition drive their engagement and motivation?  It’s important to find this out ahead of the conversation so that you can both anticipate reactions and also go in with a couple of ideas for next steps (that directly tie to both improving performance but also getting them to their goal, or driving motivational force).

3) Preparation is Key.  Whether it is making sure you have all the feedback, putting together the story of the feedback, or coming up with ideas for next steps, you want to make sure you take time to prep for the conversation.  Have you asked other stakeholders for feedback, so it’s not just your point of view?  Have you come up with specific examples and how you would have expected them to behave/perform?   Do you have a cohesive story to the feedback, is it succinct and clear (and not contradictory)?  Do you have your key talking points mapped out, that you can keep going back to if the conversation veers off course?  Are you ready for rebuttal or a negative reaction?  See why it’s important to prepare ahead of time :). The last thing you want to do is rush and create a confusing conversation on an already difficult topic.  If you are nervous about delivering the feedback, consider practicing (or at least walking through the conversation) with your manager or your HR partner.  Finally, think about the best time and place to have the conversation.  For example, maybe it is best that you meet at the end of the day so you can let them go home to continue react and think about next steps.  You should always plan to be in a private room but think about where in the office (for example, towards an exit so they can excuse themselves easier, or an office away from the team so they don’t see the reaction through the window, etc).  Reserve the room for 15 min before (so you aren’t standing outside waiting for the last meeting to end) and reserve it for an extra 30 after if either the employee needs it to get ready to go back out with the team or because the conversation lasts longer than you expected.  The worst thing is for someone to be hovering outside because they reserved the room or the employee is worried about being late to a call or meeting.  If you have to have the conversation remotely, consider video chat if that is something you and your employee are used to using (but don’t add a new technology to the mix if you aren’t used to it, it will make it more awkward and potentially more frustrating if it doesn’t work).  

4) Take Time to Ask Questions and Allow Them to Work through Their Emotions.  Even if you have done the best job possible setting up the feedback, it may still be painful to hear.  No one wants to hear that they are not succeeding.  They may feel they let you or the team down.  They may be tough on themselves and take this as a sign that they won’t be successful.  Or maybe they have personal goals that they feel this might delay.  Or they might compare themselves to someone else on the team and feel less-than because the other person is moving up faster in the company than they are.  Whatever is driving the reaction (which hopefully you were able to at least partially anticipate), it’s important to let them work through it.  This is where you need to be able to improv and read the room.  Most times, just taking your time, letting them breathe, letting them work through their questions and statements will be enough.  Don’t try to finish the sentence for them if they stumble or jump on the question thinking you know the answer before they get to finish their question.  If they appear to be surprised or trying to work through the emotions silently, give them a minute to process and then ask follow up questions to help them, but don’t diagnose them.  Instead of saying “I can tell this is hard for you” or “This is obviously upsetting you”, ask a question like “What are you thinking right now?” Or “What questions can I answer for you?”.  If you can’t tell how they are doing, you can ask, “Are you ok, do you want to take a few minutes?”  Let silence sit for a few minutes but don’t let it sit too long.  This is where you need to improvise.  It’s best to be able to continue the conversation instead of coming back together.  But if they have shut down and leading questions aren’t helping them start to work through it in the moment, no further conversation will be fruitful.  You have lost them in that room and they won’t be able to comprehend or register anything else you say there.  Sometimes you don’t have to break for long, even a walk around the block can help, they just need to get out of that room.  If you do need to take a break, make sure you come back together the next day at the latest.  Restart the conversation by asking if they have any questions about what was discussed before and then focus on next steps.  Don’t rehash the feedback or summarize (trust me, they remember!) Unless it answers their specific questions.  But other employees will need to keep talking, even through emotion, because they won’t be able to get through it on their own.  This is why it’s important to know your employee, what they need and what’s important to them in order to help them work through the moment.

5) End with a Commitment to Next Steps.  As I mentioned in the first tip, the point of this conversation is to help develop the employee.  It’s not to have them walk away feeling disengaged or frustrated or hopeless about the future.  So assuming they have been able to work through the initial reaction, make sure you start talking about next steps before finishing the conversation.  What are you both going to commit to so that they can improve their performance…and therefore find success or reach their goals?  This should be a two way conversation, not you dictating the solution.  As noted earlier, you should have initial ideas going into the conversation to kick it off if needed.  The employee may not be able to come up with anything on their own initially, so you may need to help guide them by offering suggestions.  They should be bought into the plan and both of your should be committed (and comfortable) with the next steps.  They should be attainable goals (both within the ability of the employee and your/the businesses ability to provide the opportunity).  With an action plan in place (or at least some initial ideas for next steps), hopefully the employee can walk out the room committed and excited about the future.

We are all human.  You never want to have to give tough feedback and an employee never wants to hear it.  But if you respect each other, have a foundation of trust and a commitment to development, a tough conversation can turn into a productive one…and hopefully something you both look back on as a turning point in their development.

Please join the conversation below in the chat box!  What other things have you used to help have a successful conversation?  What have you learned from a situation that didn’t go as you panned?  If you have any questions about a specific situation you are going through, don’t hesitate to reach out to me for a complimentary coaching session.  Good luck!