You need to train your employees to practice difficult conversations: here’s how

The following is an excerpt from “Elevate Your Team,” my new book on organizational leadership. simple truths; 1st edition (March 7, 2023)

Jane shifted back uncomfortably in her chair as the words of her boss, Mark, sank in.

“This is not easy to say, but I just want to make it very clear that if we don’t see sustained improvement in your performance around the key issues we discussed today, we are most likely talking about a transition out of the company.”

Jane finally understood the gravity of the situation, and Mark was able to confidently deliver a message that no leader expects to give.

That’s when I interrupted and said “freeze” and asked the other twenty people in the room for their opinions.

This was the last day of one of our advanced leadership training workshops, and we were doing a “difficult conversations” role-play exercise. We crafted a selection of prompts that were based on actual performance management conversation topics and assigned volunteers to play each role, with one person playing the manager (Mark) and the other the direct report (Jane). Talking topics were ripped from the headlines.

types of situations: complicated performance management conversations that all of our managers will eventually have to navigate and that many workshop attendees will likely need to have for the first time in their careers in the coming year as new managers.

Even though these were low-stakes role-playing exercises, the fictional managers were genuinely uncomfortable and often struggled to communicate clearly and stay within script in the moment.

We have done this exercise several times, with over a hundred employees at this time. As part of the session, we always have a volunteer pretending to be a manager who needs to tell his direct report on a record that his job is at risk if he doesn’t improve, and we have another volunteer playing an employee who thinks things are going good.

Typically, the two have a cordial conversation in which the manager references some things the direct report can do better and reminds them to improve their time management and accuracy of communication. The result of this uncertainty is that the employee assumes that everything is going well in general, even though it is not.

That’s a result we most want to avoid, and it’s the impetus of the exercise. Although the audience has read the directions of each volunteer, the actors themselves only know their version of the story, to mimic a real life situation.

About ten minutes into the conversation, I tell our actors to stop and ask the audience for their opinion. The first question I ask is, “Raise your hand if you think the manager has made it clear that the direct report’s job is at stake.” Each time, not a single hand is raised.

And now everyone clearly sees the communication disconnect that often leads to disaster: The manager thinks the employee has gotten the message, and the employee is on his way to being caught off guard.

Giving these types of comments and warnings is extremely difficult. I know many seasoned leaders who are distressed by these types of conversations, even after having been a part of them many times.

While it’s understandable, and very human, to find these conversations heartbreaking, they’re even more difficult if you haven’t learned how to have them. Furthermore, the pain avoided by dodging these conversations is nothing compared to the damage that results when two people think they are on the same page on a crucial issue when in fact they are not at all.

A new manager who spends hours contemplating how to deliver difficult news or loses sleep for a week leading up to a conversation like this is wasting a lot of valuable time and energy that impacts their work in other areas.

This is exactly why interpreting these types of conversations is so important: we want our people to practice these discussions in a low-risk environment, and we want them to look at sample conversations to see what pitfalls to avoid and best practices to emulate. When the unfortunate but inevitable time comes to have one of these conversations, you will be much better prepared, less nervous, and hopefully able to achieve a better outcome for everyone involved. It could also mean avoiding spending ten to twenty hours of overtime planning a performance conversation or spending even more time cleaning up the mess after a poorly executed discussion.

This is another example of how to improve the operating system: get a better result with less power.

Building a culture of feedback

A high brainpower culture relies heavily on direct and consistent feedback. A learning culture is, by definition, a feedback culture; one cannot be decoupled from the other.

If managers are unable to provide feedback to help their teams improve, or if employees believe they can safely ignore feedback, there is a limit to growth for the entire organization.

Think about learning to drive. In most places, a person must pass a written test to get a learner’s permit. Beforehand, they study a manual to learn how the car works, read about how to operate the vehicle, and get an idea of ​​the rules of the road. But a person who passes this test is not guaranteed to be a good driver, and they are not only issued a license, but must also practice driving under the watchful eye of an adult driver who watches them and provides important information in real time. . .

The same is true in business: learning and training are valuable, but the most significant growth comes through practice, mistakes, and real-world feedback.

To keep your employees on a high-growth trajectory, you need to give them room to make mistakes and help them identify areas for improvement. Even the most talented employees have shortcomings, and these often get caught up in people’s blind spots, which is why they need to be reported directly but respectfully.

I would venture to argue that the ability to receive feedback well is also a virtue to be sought after. At Scribe Media, a book marketing and publishing company, they teach not only how to give feedback but also how to receive it. One thing they teach is to “assume feedback is about the job, never the person.” This helps people receiving feedback to avoid getting defensive. A manager never criticizes the person (for example, “You did a bad job”), but rather talks about the work that he does (for example, “This work is not up to standards. Let me explain why and how you can fix it in the future.”).

Scribe Media not only trains employees, the company also educates its customers. For example, during the book cover design process, they train author clients to provide specific feedback and say things like, “I don’t like having blue associated with my brand. I’d like to explore other colors,” rather than something like, “It doesn’t feel right.”

Feedback is a part of learning and you can’t have a high-growth organization without it, which often means direct, difficult or uncomfortable conversations. Empowering your managers and leaders to succeed in these conversations makes a big difference in building collective capacity and delivering world-class results.

Leave a Comment