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4 Tips for Acing a Tough Conversation

When members of your team are being counterproductive, staging an intervention can be tough. Here's how to get the result you want.
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You've got one confrontational and aggressive employee who is making it hard for your team to keep up productivity. It's getting worse by the day and you know you have to take action before he or she truly takes down the whole enterprise.

Good thing there's plenty of experts on the topic of tough conversations. Here are four tips to prepare for--and ace-- the toughest conversations.

Identify your fears.

Ask yourself: What's the worst that could happen if you confront the employee about his or her behavior? You probably have a number of answers handy.

They could shut down and be unresponsive, or blow up with anger. You could lose your cool; they could get emotional. The possibilities--and horrors--seem endless. That's why you should make a list of your worst possible outcomes up front, writes author and communication consultant Mary C. Schaefer in a blog post for the consulting firm Lead Change Group.

Once you've acknowledged your disaster scenarios, she writes, you can do your best to manage your own expectations and avoid the outcomes you fear.

Check your bias at the door.

Even if you are frustrated by your employee's behavior, a little compassion goes a long way.

"Compassion is a great equalizer," educator and executive coach Allison Rimm wrote in a blog post for the Harvard Business review this week. "When you approach others with genuine concern for their well-being, your standing in the organizational hierarchy is less of a barrier to a productive conversation."

Rimm cited a personal example in which she confronted a senior team member about his disruptive behavior on one of her projects.

Regarding my colleague, I thought: He wouldn't be acting like this if he weren't suffering in some way. He must be threatened, worried, or offended.

So off I went to his office. "This project seems to have struck a nerve with you, and you've made your discomfort very clear," I said. "Your support has always meant so much to me personally and professionally. I'm sorry if I've done something to upset you. Can we talk about what is bothering you and try to find a solution?"

To my surprise, he began a 20-minute rant about how angry he was with one of his superiors, who had undermined his ability to get traction on a project that he was leading. As we discussed his situation, it became clear to both of us that his acting out in my meetings was really due to his anger with this other individual.

Take a walk.

The merits of walking meetings nonwithstanding, simply taking a tough conversation out-of-office can help to eliminate workplace tension, says Stephen Marsch, founder of the email archiving business Smarsh. Marsch attributes his constructive feedback strategy to Jack Welch's book Winning. 

"Getting out of the office will help both you and the employee get a fresh perspective on the matter at hand. It will also insure the privacy and confidentiality of the conversation," he told Inc. in 2010.

Ditch your ego.

Sometimes the hardest part of providing effective feedback is opening up to a little constructive criticism yourself.

"It is never a good idea to focus the conversation solely on the ways in which you believe the employee is lacking. Just as you are candid with your employee about his or her flaws, so too should you solicit feedback about your own management skills and style," Marsch told Inc.

His advice: Give your employee the opportunity to be candid with you about things you could do in order to help remedy the problem at hand.

 

Last updated: Jun 20, 2013

FRANCESCA FENZI | Staff Writer

Francesca Fenzi reports on entrepreneurship, technology and small business news from San Francisco. Her work has previously appeared in TIME, USA Today, Pop City and The Northside Chronicle.




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