Maybe the bitter cold weather is to blame, but recently I've had several long conversations with managers considering how to approach difficult conversations with their employees. This is not an easy thing, even for the most seasoned executive. But it is slightly less daunting, I've found, if you keep in mind one of my favorite Pat Lencioni sayings: Tell the kind truth.
This advice comes from Getting Naked, his book about client service and loyalty, but I found it applied perfectly to my friends' predicaments. In both cases, the leader was so fed up with an employee's behavior that the leader considered doing something drastic (read: getting rid of the person). Their day-to-day lives were made increasingly difficult by the team member, whose value was being questioned from more than one direction. The leap from "challenging personality" to "poor performer" is not a big one. But is that the right conclusion? And how will you know?
As a leader, you have two choices. You can talk to an employee about his or her behavior, or you can keep quiet and hope things change. I'm going to take door No. 1, which is pretty straightforward--and therein lies the problem for many of us. We know we need to have a very frank conversation about the problem and the impact it's having, but we cringe at being mean or confrontational. The thing is, it's not mean--telling the truth is actually far more kind than ignoring the problem.
How do you tell the kind truth? It's as simple--and as difficult--as it sounds. (The bible in this area is Crucial Conversations.) If you are having trouble with an employee who routinely overestimates his value or uses passive aggressiveness to undermine a peer, you absolutely need to sit down with him and say so directly, lest you are guilty of the very same behavior he's displaying.
The list of reasons why we shy away from doing this is long. "I don't like getting personal." "I don't want to undermine his confidence at what is already a difficult time." "I don't want her to get angry and yell at me." "I don't want him to get upset." "I feel like she should know these things." "It's uncomfortable for me to say them to him." "I don't know how to say it."
The bottom line is, we are sometimes more comfortable firing someone than we are having a truthful conversation and giving feedback. This sounds ludicrous, but it's absolutely true. It's also true that if you belly up to the conference table and have that difficult but truthful conversation, it may not work out. But at least you'll know that you did everything you could to help that person succeed. At some point, I'm almost certain, that will have a positive impact on both of you.