I fired a person once and they were completely shocked by it. Not only was it sad news, it was surprising. In the weeks that followed I spent a lot of time wondering how it could have been so clear to me that things weren’t working out and so unclear to my team member. What had I said or not said to create such a disconnect? Had I let my own fears trick me into giving mixed messages?
I made a promise to myself, from that day forward, no staff member of mine would ever be surprised by a performance based termination. It’s just not fair.
In today’s blog we’re going to talk about having hard conversations. Having them more frequently. Having them the right way. I’ll walk you through some of my experiences (and failings). I’ll share the new habits I’ve forced myself to adopt to ensure I always give team members the best possible chance to succeed.
I consider myself to be conflict averse. Most well-intentioned managers are. I certainly don’t seek out or enjoy conflict. I hate the thought of being hurtful. I imagine what it must feel like to hear you’re not performing or not fitting with the team and it makes me very uncomfortable. Recognizing this in myself has been an important step to becoming a better manager. Giving negative feedback. Being critical of performance. Telling staff members they aren’t meeting expectations. I know, when left to my natural instincts, I can very easily convince myself to avoid having hard conversations about these topics. I honestly don’t want to have these conversations. Does anyone?
My mistake, in the earlier part of my career, was I allowed my fears and instincts to trick me into some bad management habits. Instead of being completely honest with team members and risk hurting them, I would do stuff like this:
I’d start giving critical feedback and then sugar coat it if I saw my team member getting upset.
I’d try to end every negative performance conversation with a positive spin.
I’d use vague and nuanced language to soften the blow of a tough message.
I’d physically avoid seeing underperforming employees instead of dealing with the hard issues.
I’d search for an equal number of positive things to say to balance out the negatives.
I’d wait and hope things would improve and only act when the problems hit the absolute red line.
Any of these sound familiar to you?
What’s ironic is, I told myself I was doing these things to avoid hurting people, but I ended up doing far more damage than had I just had the hard conversations in the first place. I told myself I was trying to save them from pain but the truth is my own fear was directing my actions. My selfishness was just masquerading as benevolence. I sugar coated and avoided and nuanced until things got so bad I had to fire them.
A see a lot of managers making similar mistakes. To avoid a difficult conversation always feels easier than to have one. It’s easy to convince yourself. Maybe things will get better. Maybe when the quarter is over things will turn around. Maybe it will just take some time for him to grow into the role. There are a million reasons NOT to have the tough conversation. But that is what it means to be a manager. Our job is about helping our team members become the best possible version of themselves. You can’t do that without being honest.
I should say I’ve known a few managers at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. They seemed to love conflict. They barked out soul crushing criticism with ease. I don’t think this is ok either. For one, too much negative feedback dilutes the message. And if critical feedback is not also supportive – if it doesn’t come from a good place – it can have the opposite effect to what was intended. To these managers I would ask, is your negative feedback about helping your team member be successful or is it about You? Are you trying to help this person or are you just angry? Are you giving this person a reason to want to improve or are you just punishing them?
Since I had this realization about myself, I’ve adopted some new habits. They don’t all come naturally to me, so I need to be very purposeful about them. Here are a few of the notable ones:
I try to have one hard conversation every day. That doesn’t mean I go looking for things that aren’t there. But it’s very rare, managing a team of some size, that there aren’t a few tough conversations you should be having but aren’t. When I make my list of priorities every morning, I try to identify one hard conversation to have that can make a positive impact on that person and on my team.
When giving a tough message, I make sure it comes from a positive place. Not from a place of frustration or anger. Most of the time, the context for my critical feedback is the team member’s path to success. I try to make it all about their goals instead of being about mine. This is inherently constructive and positive e.g. I know you want to make it to Director level and I want to help you get there. To do that, you need to change these things …
I endeavor to speak as directly as possible when I give critical feedback. I reduce the qualifiers and adjectives down to a bare minimum. It is possible to do this and still be kind. I lead with the headline message instead of meandering slowly to the point. I resist the temptation to rush. As much as it can be uncomfortable, you must go through the process and hit every point and allow it to sink in. My team member might be very upset, on the inside I may be dying to get as far away as possible, but I force myself to be deliberate.
I remind myself not to sugar coat my criticisms. As much as I may want to find a positive spin, I fight the urge. I tell myself that the nicest thing I can do in that moment is to give my team member exactly the information they need to repair the problem and get back on the path to success. There is no kindness in allowing an employee to believe they’re doing better than they are.
Having tough conversations and giving critical feedback is not something that comes naturally for me. My body and mind want to trick me into avoiding this type of conflict. I’ve tried to become more objective in how I assess myself as a manager and adopt purposeful habits to shore up the areas where I’m weakest. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic – email me or share in the comments.