Working with people to improve their performance is one of the most important functions in managing. Yet managers often avoid conversations about poor performance because they can be difficult and confrontational. No-one likes to become involved in heated arguments that may result in accusations and emotional outbursts. We do not want to risk embarrassment, or damage relationships, so that afterwards we find it impossible to work comfortably with the person.
As often as not, we approach these conversations in ways that make a difficult situation even worse. Just when we need to be on our best behaviour in a conversation, we talk in ways that almost guarantee it will not go well. Here are three of the most common mistakes.
The first mistake we make is to talk too much.
When we have to talk about something with which we are uncomfortable many of us talk around the subject, hoping perhaps that the other person will get the message without it having to be spoken directly. We say that we are being polite and are putting the message across gently. In fact we are only creating confusion. We end up leaving the other person to guess what it is exactly that we are trying to say, with an anxiety that they may or may not have got it right.
When we use lots of words, there is also the risk that we will say something careless, accusing or inflammatory, making it more likely that the other person will react defensively or simply shut down and say little at all.
To avoid the problem of talking too much, decide exactly what you need to say to put the problem on the table, then choose the simplest way of saying it. Rehearse the words so you are comfortable with them. The fewer words you use to open a conversation and explain the problem as you see it, the safer the conversation will be for everyone.
The second mistake is to put all of the blame on the other person.
It is tempting to see every problem as the fault of the other person. If THEY would perform to the agreed standards; if THEY would just stick to the rules; if THEY would do what they promised; then there would not be a problem. So we go into conversations with statements like, You did not complete this report on time, or even more accusingly, Your report is late again. When people feel attacked, they defend. That is how conflict and confrontation start in conversations.
Before you blame, take a moment to think through as many possible reasons for the performance problem as you can. Did you make your instructions clear? Are you sure you obtained understanding of and commitment to the deadline? Was the person able to obtain the information needed to complete their work on time?
Ask questions to find out exactly what happened and why. So long as you blame and accuse, you will not get to hear the other side of the story.
The third mistake we make is to confuse our opinions and feelings with the facts.
The more difficult a conversation, the more important it is to get the facts on the table, right at the start. When the facts are not made clear up front, a difficult conversation quickly degenerates into a win lose battle between different opinions, in which the winner is usually the one with the loudest voice. It can be difficult to distinguish opinions and feelings from facts sometimes: and the more strongly we feel about a situation, the more difficult it becomes. Even a simple statement such as, Your report is late again, is not a fact. It would be a fact, if it were stated as, Your last two reports have each come in two days behind the deadline.
It is important to get the facts clear at the start of a conversation. Facts are facts! They do not change because we disagree about them. The more opinions differ about a situation, the more important it is to make sure the facts are clear from the start, providing a starting point from which differing views can safely be discussed.
Maureen Collins has a B.Sc. degree in Psychology from Edinburgh University and over 25 years of consulting experience. She specialises in communication skills. In Straight Talk, she trains people how to handle difficult conversations, on difficult topics, with difficult people.
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