Sunday, 9 June 2013

Difficult Discussions

I often wonder why people in the corporate environment are so sensitive about feedback.  If we were athletes or sportsmen, we would welcome suggestions as to how we can enhance our performance.  However, many employees find “constructive criticism” difficult – in tough economic times it can make individuals feel that their position is insecure, the resultant worry reducing their contribution further  and potentially having a knock on effect on others.  When the market starts picking up, it is your disengaged employees (good performers as well as bad) who will be the first to take up opportunities elsewhere.

We all know that performance reviews are a crucial part of modern corporate life – if people don’t know how they are doing, how can they improve?  Without effective key performance indicators (KPIs) how can we measure how well employees and the business are doing and ensure that everything is on track?  Data is becoming increasingly important, but it is crucial to remember that the employees who make a business succeed are people and not just numbers in a spreadsheet or a formula.  Even when having “difficult conversations” – such as informing an employee that they have not met required levels of performance or behaviour, you should take care to be calm, professional and informative.  Here are a dozen simple actions and approaches that can make a meeting easier for both parties:

  • Don’t delegate the discussion to someone else, if you are nervous or feel that having a witness is necessary, bring a colleague or member of HR but let the employee know that you are doing so;
  • Come prepared and hold the meeting in a suitable place with no distractions or interruptions;
  • Remain calm – for any professional manager this discussion should be about their team member’s performance and should never disintegrate into a character assassination nor be used as an opportunity to humiliate someone;
  • Have facts to hand to substantiate your comments (such as the mutually agreed objectives and specific examples of where performance and results have fallen short);
  • Remember that performance = ability x motivation;
  • Determine whether the person is capable of doing what is expected - do they have the aptitude, training and necessary resources?;
  • It is easy to ask someone whether they have what they need to do a job;their answer (and the way they say it) will probably tell you much of what you need to know about their approach, frustrations and attitude.  The simple fact that you have asked for their input may go a long way towards resolving a problem, because you have signalled that you are interested and prepared to help;
  • Be willing to listen to the other person’s point of view – there may be facts and circumstances that you are unaware of;
  • If they cite external factors as the reason for poor performance, look into their claims; sometimes people find it easier to blame others before admitting to their own weaknesses, but if they are correct there may be other issues that also need to be resolved;
  • Verify whether they are willing to make the required effort to do the job well and, if not, find out why not;
  • Don’t wait until the meeting to inform an employee that you are disappointed with their contribution – a good manager has regular discussions with their team members and both parties should know how things are going at any stage of the year; and
  • Remember to comment on the things a person has done well, in addition to discussing the areas for improvement – if you leave some of these points until near the end of the meeting both parties are more likely to leave in a positive frame of mind.
Remember this dozen
People usually respond better to praise than criticism – Aesop’s fable of the Sun and the North Wind competing to get the traveller to remove his cloak has a sound moral message.  Gentle warmth towards others will often achieve results faster than harsh words and hostility. 

Increasingly work is becoming less repetitive task orientated and is requiring individuals to use their initiative and knowledge to achieve complicated and sophisticated outcomes.  Incentivising performance is a conventional way of encouraging people to perform as required.  However, rewards do not have to be financial (indeed, money is often not the most effective motivator 

as demonstrated in Daniel Pink’s excellent talk at the RSA (one of my favourite RSA Animates):

Simple praise, granting autonomy, staying in touch throughout the year, being interested and saying thank you for work well done, can often achieve more, through motivating and engaging an individual, than a manager will ever do through demoralising criticism in the annual review.

So here's to "getting better" at treating people like people and hence getting the best out of them (with thanks to the Beatles).


  1. Useful blog thanks Kate. I recently ran a workshop on having difficult conversations, and one of the main bumps in the road was linked to your point about 'Don't wait until the meeting'. During the workshop it surfaced that many people were not very smart about having conversation as an ongoing part of their work. Stuff gets put off, emails and voicemails (mainly emails...) get ignored, and from experience brushing things under the carpet is rarely the answer. I'm going to get my notes out and see what else I learned from that workshop and if there's value in sharing - I'll do so. Cheers - Doug

  2. Lorna Plumpton2 July 2013 at 08:19

    Hi Kate, pictures tell a thousand words and I think this is a very useful blog for new team leaders/managers and long serving managers as well for them to peruse before they have performance appraisal discussions, as some people do come unprepared, and they don't always remain calm which then has a detrimental effect on the employee,and as you say there should not be any suprises, so having conversations periodically or every 2 months certainly helps to keep people on track and engaged and communication is crucial for a motivated, engaged workforce and sustainability in the current climate.

  3. Really simple concepts...some we know already but forget or fail to act on them - so this is a great reminder both blog & clips to make it come alive a little more. Thanks for sharing