Difficult conversations

Communication  Culture
26 October, 2015

Get over your squeamishness and have that tough talk

Have you had situations when someone on your team is not performing as per expectations or not doing their part? Do you address this head-on? Or do you avoid having the conversation? Or do you tend to sugar coat the tough message?

Frankly, many of us struggle to have these kinds of ‘difficult’ conversations. Rather than engaging in open, direct and productive dialogues in a timely manner, we tend to avoid them till the situation gets out of hand.

Do introspect on what makes these conversations so difficult for you. Is it that you think you will be liked less? Are you someone who by nature avoids confrontation? Do you find these conversations difficult to navigate? You don’t like the cross questioning? You don’t know how to manage people getting defensive? You don’t want to hurt feelings? Do you think things will just get better on their own without you having to intervene? Or because you’ve avoided it for so long, it just seems too large to take on now?

Whatever your reason may be, you’re not alone. When faced with a tricky conversation, many of us just want to avoid it or hand it to someone else to manage.

But when you avoid these conversations, you do a disservice to yourself, to the individual and to the organisation. The individual does not get a chance to learn and address the gaps. You look bad as you cannot deliver the desired results if your team member is not performing. And the organisation also gets adversely impacted. So, net-net, everyone suffers.

So, my message this week focuses on the courage to have ‘difficult’ conversations and not avoid them. While tact and diplomacy is important, you need to know when and how to be direct when the situation calls for it.

Frankly, I am not sure if I should even label these conversations ‘difficult’. But I couldn’t think of a better way to describe these conversations. The pitfall to avoid is that if you think that these conversations are difficult, then you may be setting yourself up to avoid them. Think about it. You may already be worried about the conversation and chances are that you are pushing it to as far off as you can. ‘Difficult’ only adds to that. It also becomes an excuse for you to hide behind and reassure yourself that it is only understandable for you to be avoiding them.

But being able to have these conversations is very much a part of being not just an authentic leader but also a good team player. 

And at Godrej, we want to be able to create a culture where we can have many more of these conversations. A space where people feel comfortable to speak up and make change happen. We want these discussions to be honest and direct and packed with enough debate. We want people to argue it out. We want them to agree to disagree. We want to do all of this because only then, when we can foster this openness, will we be able to truly tap into the potential of our great company. In line with our people philosophy of ‘Tough Love’, we want to push and coach our team members to be the best they can be and promise authentic feedback. We want to embrace the conflict that is so necessary for us to drive innovation, challenge the status quo and leverage our wonderfully diverse teams.

Bottom line, we want to foster open, honest feedback, aimed at making us stronger, both the individual as well as Godrej.

And as leaders, we need to be able to role model and lead this. You may think this is about one conversation with one person. But it is much more than that. How you act and react sets an example for your team members. It will define how they in turn, approach situations with their teams and so on.

Here are some suggestions on how you can better approach a difficult conversation:

1. Try to be more positive and solution oriented

The more positive your approach is, the more likely you are to make this a constructive dialogue with helpful takeaways. For example, if you have to give your team member feedback on how his performance hasn’t been up to the mark, try approaching it as a conversation with feedback about how he can improve, instead of a confrontational listing of all that has been wrong. You need to make this shift in your mind first, for it to be able to translate and change the conversation. Move the focus to the solution, rather than nitpicking about what has happened.

2. Accept that it will be emotional

There is no point in pretending that isn’t going to be an emotional exchange. It will be, so accept and prepare for it. In fact, I recently came across an interesting Harvard Business Review article, The Neurochemistry of Positive Conversations, where Judith E. Glaser and Richard D. Glaser point out how negative comments and conversations are proven to actually stay with us much longer than the positive ones. “When we face criticism, rejection or fear, when we feel marginalised or minimised, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that shuts down the thinking centre of our brains and activates conflict aversion and protection behaviours. We become more reactive and sensitive. We often perceive even greater judgment and negativity than actually exists… Positive comments and conversations produce a chemical reaction too. They spur the production of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that elevates our ability to communicate, collaborate and trust others by activating networks in our prefrontal cortex. But oxytocin metabolises more quickly than cortisol, so its effects are less dramatic and long-lasting.” This doesn’t mean that you don’t have the ‘difficult’ conversations. You just need to become more understanding of the impact that they can have, unless managed well. Why you need to make the focus of these discussions more constructive. And actively manage the upset that they may cause.

3. Don’t skirt around the tough parts

Very often, we try to couch the ‘bad news’ in other, more positive news. This is how the typical feedback structure works – good news, bad news, good news. By all means, acknowledge what works and the effort going into it. But don’t bring up these positives merely to distract from the tougher conversation and to make the other person feel better. This can send across mixed messaging, which ends up being confusing and is counterproductive. Detail what isn’t working. Ask for feedback. Talk it out. Carve out enough time for this conversation. Don’t make it an aside. Be clear about what the purpose of your discussion is and what you would like to take away from it. Lay this out at the start, so that the other person is on the same page. Very often, when we are either not clear about this, or we aren’t comfortable with being open about it, we end up leaving this piece incomplete. This can cause a lot of angst later on.

4. Look at the larger picture

Don’t approach this as just a standalone conversation. Look at it as part of a larger feedback cycle. And as part of that cycle, also make it a point to appreciate people when things go well. It is not just great to keep people engaged and motivated, but also helps establish the base for conversations on what isn’t working. People will be more inclined to hear where they need to make changes, if you also acknowledge when they do great work. This is especially so when it involves your peers or members of different teams in matrix structures who you do not have a direct reporting relationship with.

5. Prepare for your conversation

Any feedback conversation requires preparation, but more so when you are pointing out what isn’t going right. Think through your approach. List down examples that you can use to substantiate your points. Be empathetic. Try and understand the other person’s point of view and where she is coming from. Bounce off what you want to say with someone first, if that helps. Find the right words to use; this can make a big difference. Running through this a couple of times in your mind will probably help you realise that this need not be that intimidating after all.

6. Ask questions and listen

Make this a dialogue, not a one-way exchange. Involve the other person. Ask open ended, probing questions. And listen. It will help you understand her perspective as well as show her that you value her opinion. This will make her less defensive and more likely to collaborate with you on finding an effective way forward.

7. Don’t procrastinate

Sometimes, the mistake we make is waiting it out when we see things going wrong. This may be okay if you believe things will be corrected shortly. But if this isn’t so or you don’t see it happening, step in. Don’t let it hang till the end of a project, or for the formal review to happen, or because you think it isn’t quite your place to point it out. It is much easier to course correct for smaller, incremental issues. Take the initiative and have the conversation. At the very least, it will be much easier than the one you will need to have later on if this snowballs.

8. Follow through

This is the part that tends to be the most forgotten. It is very important to follow up after a few days to see how the person is feeling. Check on how the team member is acting on the feedback.

Remember that these conversations can be a great opportunity for you to learn and grow. And if done in the right manner, it can lead to productive relationships. Being open and direct, while being respectful and trusting is a necessary part of the culture we want to foster. So, don’t avoid that difficult conversation.

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