As a leader, you need to manage your staff’s performance – which often involves having difficult conversations. Enter Covid – plus working and leading remotely – and this just got a whole lot more complicated.
Knowing how to provide development feedback is an essential leadership skill, and many of my coaching clients come to me for help in doing so, particularly when they anticipate these as difficult conversations – in person or through zoom.
Let’s take a scenario that comes up often and in various forms – a staff member’s communication style. You have experienced a staff member’s communication style as being overly assertive – even aggressive. Furthermore, you have also received similar feedback from a team member or an external partner. You have raised this issue with the staff member before, but they did not acknowledge and/or accept the feedback. What do you do?
1. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
Before you even meet with your staff, prepare yourself for the conversation.
- Remind yourself that you are a developer of talent within the organisation. Think about how you can reframe a potentially difficult conversation to move from opposition to partnership, from convincing to learning, from correcting to developing.
- What did you learn from the last conversation? What will you do differently this time? What barriers did you encounter and how can you overcome them?
- Check your organisational policies. Familiarize yourself with policies relating to performance standards and conduct. E.g. Company values; Standards of Conduct; Competency Framework. These all provide expected standards of conduct applicable to all staff and can be a good reference point.
- Get support if you need it. What resources do you have at your disposal? E.g. your boss, HR, peers, legal…
- (Re)check your facts and gather supporting evidence.
- Plan the meeting. Write a script, or some notes to guide you.
- Remain open and curious.
2. Set the tone
When you introduce the meeting, start well. Don’t be afraid to refer to your pre-prepared script to help you feel/stay in control. And remember to focus on the issue, not the person.
- Explain the purpose of the meeting.
- Set out the structure of the meeting.
- Agree standards of behaviour during the meeting.
- Adopt a calm and professional manner.
- Reassure them about confidentiality – both before and after the meeting.
For example, you might begin:
“This is a follow-up conversation to the one we had a month ago, regarding your communication style with some team members. At the time, I explained that several of your team members reported their experience of you as ‘aggressive and combative’ during meetings and in one-to-one exchanges. Today, I have three goals:
- I’d like to reiterate the importance of effective communication and team work and get your views on this.
- I’d like to remind you of the company core values, with which all members are expected to comply – particularly the one related to respect and tolerance.
- I’d like to discuss ways of moving forward.” (Be clear about this objective).”
3. State the issue and give evidence
- Clearly outline the issue, with facts, and explain the impact of the issue.
- Explain what the issue is and give specific examples, referring to dates, documents, work, or specific interactions.
- Explain the impact the problem is having on them as an individual, the team and the organization.
E.g. “Let me a provide a recap: One of your team members reported that you raised your voice when they asked you for your input for the annual report. This happened on (x date). Another member team member came to see me after a team meeting and reported that you raised your voice when they asked you a clarification question about your input (on said date).
At this point in time, the two colleagues in question do not feel comfortable coming to you, for fear of you yelling at them. When colleagues are fearful to approach others, it undermines a well-functioning team and their perceived sense of psychological safety. It also runs contrary to the company values that guide us and our work, as well as our code of conduct and commitment to a safe working environment.”
4. Ask for an explanation
Now, invite them to respond.
- Listen to what they have to say – and appreciate that they might need to let off steam.
- Keep an open mind and don’t jump to conclusions.
- Acknowledge their position and any mitigating circumstances. If new evidence emerges, adjourn the meeting, if this feels appropriate.
- Introduce your questions and explore the issues further.
- Stay clear of emotive language and don’t respond to manipulative behaviour.
E.g. “Now I’d like to hear from you. The last time we spoke, you indicated that you were just ‘telling it like it is’ and ‘being honest’. I’ve already given you some feedback that some colleagues don’t react well to this style of communication. What is your thinking on this? … (allow them time to answer).
What is the difference between your intention to “tell it like it is”, and the impact you have on others – colleagues not feeling comfortable working with you? … (allow them time to answer).
5. Agree a way forward
In resolving the issue and drawing the conversation to a close:
- Ask the employee for proposals to resolve the situation.
- Discuss the options.
- MAKE A DECISION – you are in charge!
- Document any agreement and give a copy to the employee. This should set out:
- Agreed outcomes with dates and standards required.
- Any support or training to be provided by the manager.
- Agreed outcomes with dates and standards required.
- Any consequences if the agreement is breached.
- Arrange a follow up meeting.
- Monitor feedback on progress and continue to provide support where agreed.
E.g. “What options do you see for refining your communication style and adding more tools to your communication tool-box?
Which option would you like to prioritize for the next month?
Which options would you like to prioritize for the next 6 months?
What help you do need in doing X? How can I support you?
Let’s check in, in a month.”
These guidelines work equally well in both face-to-face and virtual settings. Many people are feeling anxious and sensitive during these times, but you can resolve issues in a reasonable way by following these steps. Preparation, clarity, and curiosity increase your chances of having a dialogue – which is imperative for mapping a way forward.
If you would like to take yourself, your career, your team and your organistion further, simply contact me to discuss the possibilities.
If you would like to, please download my coaching programme brochure – Women’s Leadership Coaching – For Women in Development – specifically designed for women working in global development.
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LinkedIn: Palena Neale