A few years ago, I was mentoring a CEO of a large multi-national firm in Sydney. He casually told me that he was making an underperforming staff member redundant. Their plan was to leave the position vacant for 6 months and then advertise the position under a revised name to avoid issues with unfair dismissal laws. The woman involved was seen as a poor fit for her role. When I asked what attempts had been made to discuss her performance, he laughed. He said, “We realised early on that she was not fitting in and had hoped she would resign. We haven’t really talked with her.” The woman involved had been with the company for more than a year.

As part of my role, I was working with his team and offered to speak with her. Within 5 minutes of connecting with her about her role she started to tell me how much she was struggling. She felt like she was letting the team down. She was a lovely woman who was not very confident to ask questions of force her way in a business environment. She was very grateful that finally someone had started a conversation with her.

If either the boss or the woman had been willing to sit down and talk about how to make the role work, they could have easily come to some arrangements. The CEO had interpreted the woman’s shyness as aloofness. He was worried she would get upset if they had a difficult conversation about her performance. She did not feel safe to start a conversation to talk her role. So, both sides were waiting for the other. The strategy to make her redundant shows the lengths intelligent and successful people will go to avoid a difficult conversation.


The business context makes difficult conversations easier or harder

Difficult conversations are always a challenge, but they are much easier to have in a safe environment. Some businesses are just not safe. It is difficult to do anything but what you are told. In these environments you turn up, do your job, and go home. Not much energy is applied by any staff member after hours. Staff members in this type of workplace are always checking the job adverts and are open for a better offer. Turnover is usually high. No-one is invested emotionally in their role. Bosses in these types of companies complain they cannot find motivated staff who will own their role. I used to try to pitch my services as a business mentor to owners of these types of companies, but they are just not interested. They pay a salary, and they expect their people to work. They do not want to learn how to motivate or how to create an environment in which their people will thrive.

Other businesses are smarter and work hard to build a healthy culture. If you want motivated people who are passionate about what they do, you must work on your company culture. Culture always comes from the owner or leader of the company. Leaders set the tone. A leader’s example is critical to the culture. A leader either sets or allows the culture that develops in a business. Culture grows out of the real core values that are lived in a business. If the leader is moody and unpredictable then the culture will be terrible. People do not thrive when they are walking on eggshells or afraid they will be barked at.


A healthy business environment requires good leadership

A healthy business is one where every staff member is clear about their role. They understand how what they do each day contributes to the company vision and goals. They can see that the company is doing good work and making a difference in the lives of people. They are helped to work together in a collaborative way with team members. There is good leadership. The whole company is working to a strategy that everyone can follow. Employees are recognised for good work. They are helped when they struggle. They are rewarded for innovative ideas. They are never put down or made to feel foolish if they have an idea that does not fly. All are clear about pathways that could emerge for them within the company if they continue to develop their skills. Every employee feels they are valued and respected.

This is a company where people love to come to work. It does not just happen. It requires consistent work over years to build. I can tell you that in this environment it is much easier to have difficult conversations. People feel safer. They are not wasting energy every day watching their back and navigating difficult relationships.


Conflict can be creative or destructive

“In the absence of productive conflict, and that is in the presence of destructive conflict, personal attacks thrive, controversial topics are ignored, and we spend time and energy on managing interpersonal risk.” Says HR leader, Dina Pozzo, from Insium. No-one thrives in a toxic environment.

In a healthy workplace, it is possible to discuss and debate ideas and strategies. People know how to contribute. Ideas are criticised and developed without personal offence being taken. Great ideas emerge in such a crucible. In a social media age, where people take offence so quickly, this kind of workplace is rarer than it should be. Difficult conversations become almost impossible when people are insecure and feeling unsafe.


Types of conversations that are often difficult

Even if your workplace is a safe place, there are a whole variety of conversations that could be called difficult.


A. From manager to employee

My experience working with teams tells me that even with the power of seniority many people in management roles find some conversations stressful. Being the boss does not make a person secure or good at interpersonal relationships.

  1. Giving feedback. Some find this very challenging. I know companies where managers avoid this if possible. Issues that should be small mount up and become large problems because of the avoidance of managers. This can be made simpler by training, in a healthy culture where everyone invites feedback because they want to learn and grow.
  2. Dealing with employee differences – e.g. requiring someone to work closely on a project with another team member you know they do not like (or find easy to connect with). These kinds of issues can be tricky. A healthy culture and some training will make it easier. All employees will be helped to build relationships and to show respect even to those who are different behavioural styles.
  3. Discussing performance issues – there is a formal place for this, but often the best place for helping an employee to grow and learn is in the moment on the job. This requires managers to learn coaching skills and to be willing to take a personal interest in the growth of their team. Without good relationship, and a caring attitude, these conversations can be fraught.
  4. Clarifying a misunderstanding with a team member. This requires the manager to approach the staff member with an attitude that is curious to clarify a misunderstanding, rather than judging harshly and confronting the person and causing defensiveness and reaction. There are skills to be learned.
  5. Correcting someone who has made a mistake. Mistakes are a learning opportunity, not a time for punishment. In a healthy business culture, often employees and managers will invite evaluation of performance so they can learn and improve. Such an environment makes correction so much easier.
  6. Correcting someone who has said something that is incorrect or unhelpful. Once again, this is a training opportunity rather than a time for harsh judgement. If you assume the worst, you often get it. If you assume the best, it gives people an opportunity to lift and be better. If someone is unteachable and disrespectful, then there is reason to bring a formal warning. Usually, people want to learn and grow if they are given the chance.
  7. Disciplining a team member. When someone requires discipline, because they have broken company policy, or been defiant or rude, every business should have a process to follow. If you control your anger, and be firm but fair, you will almost always win people over by enforcing discipline. Correction is best done privately, maybe with one witness offered if they feel unsafe.
  8. Managing someone who is moody. Whether they are aware or unaware of how they come across, this person can affect the whole team. They need to be listened to and understood, and then helped to grow in their social intelligence. Moodiness will limit their career and affect the atmosphere in the team. Ultimately, they need to be challenged to manage themselves better. This conversation requires some skill.
  9. When the effort is good, but the result is still not great. Often there is a team member who works hard with a good attitude, but they struggle to get results. They may have a poor attention to detail or cause issues with a client relationship. They seem to always be missing the mark. They need encouraging but also training and perhaps relocating to new roles.


In summary

There are many types of difficult conversations that need to be entered into by a manager in a workplace. If they are avoided, problems will grow. Respect will be diminished. If they are handled poorly, conflict will increase, and people will leave. The workplace culture is a huge factor in either making difficult conversations easier, or almost impossible.

In my next newsletter I will outline how to have some of the more difficult conversations from an employee to someone more senior in their company……….. to be continued.


INTEGRATE: Why Work Life Balance is a Myth | John Drury

Integrate: Why Work Life Balance is a Myth and what you really need to create a fulfilling lifestyle

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