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Having Difficult Conversations with Employees

July 29, 2013

When I was a newly minted manager Symantec sent me to a Communication for Results class 3 times. Yes 3 times since as a propeller head and newly minted manger it just wasn’t sinking in. After the 3rd time I finally got it. It is a communications template for having difficult conversations with employees and/or business partners where a behavior needs to change. I’ve used it for 20 years with great results… It goes like this:

1) I’ve noticed that <behavior>.

2) It may be because <excuse>.

3) The impact it is having is <short list of impacts>.

4) It makes me feel <feelings>.

5) Let’s talk about this <some later date>.

Some psychologist way smarter than me figured out that this format for difficult conversations worked better than just about any other methodology. Being an engineer, I asked why the format was what it was. Here is what they shared:

1) “I’ve noticed that <behavior>” calls out the behavior that needs to be fixed/resolved. It states the problem that needs to be solved with what the employee is doing wrong that needs to be fixed or changed.

2) “It may be because <excuse>” hands them an excuse such that they are not thinking of a comeback and, while thinking, no longer listening to the rest of what you have to say. It also shows them that you have empathy to think through why this might be going on and that you care about what is going on with them vs. simply being an evil manager.

3) “The impact it is having is <short list of impacts>” lists the factual negative impacts of their behaviors on the team, project, etc. These are the things that will be better once they change the behavior you are calling out. Should be a short list and not a laundry list. You don’t want them to quit listening and to go on the defensive. You also want to be able to finish the 5 step formula of what it is you want to articulate before they jump in–make the list too long and it doesn’t work as they feel attacked and against the ropes.

4) “It makes me feel <feelings>” is an easy way to take the person out of the mental state of wanting to argue with the impacts you just listed. It helps to de-escalate or disarm the encounter. Your feelings are your own and nothing they do or say can change how you feel. Most people realize this as a futile exercise.

5) “Let’s talk about this <some later date>” allows the person to not feel threatened or cornered. It lets them know that they don’t have to think on their toes and try to defend themselves immediately. Coupled with the free excuse you provided early it defuses what could sometimes be an ugly situation. It also gives the person time to reflect on what you said. To think about the behavior, the free excuse you handed them, and the impacts (they may or may not care how it makes you feel). It gives them time for all of this to sink in.

The end goal of this formula for difficult conversations is to have a productive conversation. Resist their temptation to have that conversation now though.. They really do need that reflection time. Have it later. If that later conversation goes down a rat hole and doesn’t lead to productive results in an acknowledgement or a plan to change that behavior then retreat back to the formula.

At the end of the day the employee will either work with you to change that behavior or they will not. If they don’t then you can have a conversation just about that unwillingness to change. Finally, you have all the bullets you need for a Performance Improvement Plan.

Example: Morning Ralph. I’ve noticed that you haven’t been making it to our morning standups. It may be because something has changed at home and you’ve had to take care of things and have not been able to make the time. The problem though is this is the one time where the team gets together to share what they need from each other in terms of help and assistance for the rest of the day and with you not available, nobody can coordinate with you. This means that their stories are impacted as they cannot get with you for the help they need and you haven’t been as productive as you can be because you are not able to coordinate their help. This makes me feel that I cannot rely on you to help the team make its goals and commitments. It makes me agitated that I have to coordinate things later in the day that should have been taken care of at the standup. Let’s talk about this tomorrow afternoon as I’d like to know your thoughts on how we could possibly resolve.

Give it a try…see if, as a manager, it helps you have difficult conversations with your employees vs. avoiding them.

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