You Should Train Your Employees to Practice Difficult Conversations – Here’s How

The following is an excerpt from “Elevate Your Team,” my new book on organizational leadership. Simple Truths; 1st edition (March 7, 2023)

Jane shifted uncomfortably in her chair as her boss Mark’s words sank in.

“That’s not easy to say, but I just want to make it very clear with you that if we don’t see a sustained improvement in your performance against the key issues we discussed today, it’s very likely that we’re talking about a transition out of the company. .”

Jane finally understood the gravity of the situation, and Mark was able to confidently communicate a message no leader hopes to deliver.

That’s when I interrupted and said “freeze” and asked the twenty other people in the room for feedback.

This was the last day of one of our advanced leadership training workshops, and we were doing a “difficult conversations” role-play exercise. We created a selection of prompts based on actual performance management conversation topics and assigned volunteers to represent each role—with one person playing the manager (Mark) and the other a direct report (Jane). Topics of conversation were plucked from the headlines

types of situations – tricky performance management conversations that all of our managers will eventually have to navigate and that many workshop participants would likely need to have for the first time in their careers next year as new managers.

While these were low-stakes role-playing exercises, the fictional managers felt real discomfort and often struggled to communicate clearly and stay on script for the moment.

We’ve done this exercise several times, with over a hundred employees at this point. As part of the session, we always have a volunteer pretending to be a manager who needs to inform his direct report at a check-in that his job is at risk if he doesn’t improve, and we have another volunteer playing an employee who thinks things are going well. .

Typically, the two have a cordial conversation in which the manager mentions some things the direct report can do better and reminds them to improve their time management and communication accuracy. The result of this uncertainty is that the employee assumes that everything is going well overall, even when it is not.

This is the outcome we most want to avoid and is the impetus for the exercise. While the audience reads each volunteer’s instructions, the actors themselves only know their side of the story, to mimic a real-life situation.

After about ten minutes of conversation, I tell our actors to freeze and ask the audience for their opinion. The first question I ask is, “Hands up if you think the manager has made it clear that the direct report’s job is at stake.” Every time, not a single hand is raised.

And now everyone clearly sees the communication disconnect that often leads to disaster: the manager thinks the employee got the message and the employee is about to be blindsided.

Giving that kind of feedback and warning is extremely difficult. I know many seasoned leaders who absolutely agonize over these types of conversations, even after they’ve been in them many times.

While it’s understandable – and very human – to find these conversations painful, they’re even more difficult if you haven’t learned how to have them. Furthermore, the pain avoided by avoiding these conversations is nothing compared to the damage that results when two people think they are on the same page about a crucial issue, when in fact they are not.

A new manager who spends hours thinking about how to break bad news or loses sleep for a week before such a conversation is wasting a lot of valuable time and energy that affects his work elsewhere.

This is exactly why interpreting these types of conversations is so important – we want our people to practice these discussions in a low-risk environment and to look at sample conversations to see what pitfalls to avoid and what best practices to follow. When the unfortunate but inevitable time comes to have one of these conversations, they will be much better prepared, less nervous, and hopefully able to achieve a better outcome for everyone involved. It could also mean avoiding spending an extra ten to twenty hours planning a performance conversation or spending even more time cleaning up the mess after a poorly executed discussion.

This is another example of operating system improvement: getting a better result with less power.

Building a feedback culture

A culture with high intellectual capacity is highly dependent on direct and consistent feedback. A learning culture is, by definition, a feedback culture; one cannot be dissociated from the other.

If managers are unable to provide feedback to help their teams improve—or if employees believe they can ignore feedback without consequences—there is a ceiling to growth for the entire organization.

Think about learning to drive. In most places, a person must pass a written exam to obtain a student permit. Rather, they study a manual to learn how the car works, read about how to operate the vehicle, and get a feel for traffic rules. But a person who passes this test is not guaranteed to be a good driver and does not simply receive a license – they must also practice driving under the watchful eye of an adult driver who observes them and provides important real-time feedback. .

The same goes for business—learning and training are valuable, but the most significant growth comes through practice, mistakes, and real-world feedback.

To keep your employees on a high-growth trajectory, you must give them room to make mistakes and help them identify areas for improvement. Even the most talented employees have shortcomings, and often get caught up in people’s blind spots, which is why they need to be brought to your attention in a direct but respectful way.

I would go so far as to argue that the ability to take feedback well is also a virtue to be sought after. At Scribe Media, a book publishing and marketing company, they teach you not only how to give feedback, but also how to receive it. One thing they teach is “assume the feedback is about the job, never the person”. This helps people receiving feedback avoid becoming defensive. A manager never criticizes the person (e.g., “You did a bad job.”), but instead talks about the work they do (e.g., “This work is not up to standards. explain to me why and how you can fix this in the future.”).

Scribe Media doesn’t just train employees – the company also educates its customers. For example, during the book cover design process, they guide author clients to provide specific feedback and say things like, “I don’t like having blue associated with my brand. I’d like to explore other colors”, instead of something like “It doesn’t look right”.

Feedback is part of learning, and you can’t have a high-growth organization without it, which often involves direct, difficult, or uncomfortable conversations. Coaching your managers and leaders to successfully have these conversations makes a huge difference in building collective capacity and delivering world-class results.

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