People are messy.
I’m not talking about their personal hygiene or their living conditions. I’m talking about people and their relationships. Relationships are sticky gooey and messy. All of us, myself included, want neat crisp clear relationships with well defined borders and rules. (Un)fortunately, when dealing with human beings we deal with emotions, and feelings. Not only do we have to deal with our own emotions, we also have to try to sort out the emotions of those around us. We constantly have to clarify the meaning of our behaviors and words to those around us. For business owners and HR leaders, this gets especially difficult when we have to discuss a person’s poor/confusing/mismanaged behavior with them.
Think about your own organization, and whether this sounds familiar:
Jacob was hired six months ago to fulfill a very specific and and business-critical role. You, the business owner, had known and worked with him prior to his joining your organization, and you were always impressed by his level of knowledge in his industry, which fell outside of your own expertise. Given his level of experience, he was hired at a premium, but it was an investment you were willing to make.
Over the next six months, you observe that projects aren’t getting done as quickly as he anticipates they will be. Each time he has an explanation for the delay, each of which sounds reasonable, but still impacts the satisfaction of your clients. Other team members come to you and express not only concern, but frustration with Jacob and his inability to complete jobs on time. You ask him about it, but quickly back down when he becomes defensive. Tensions between him and the other members of your organization are rising.
Every organization, whether a business, church group, school or nonprofit, has this type of situation. The facts or circumstances may change, but the reality is that I spend a large amount of my consulting time helping leaders prepare for performance conversations and I hear the same story over and over. A manager (or business owner or HR manager) has to deliver bad news and describe the change in behavior necessary for success.
These exchanges have three common traits:
- Emotions are high
- The outcome really matters
- The person you are talking to will likely not understand or welcome your input
Sometimes leaders postpone the awkward conversation and miss significant opportunities to coach because they haven’t “found the right time.” Others are so nervous (emotions are high) that they think it’s better to say nothing. And yes, there are those who hope the problem will go away or that either someone else will say something or that the problematic person will suddenly decide they’re going back to school or moving across the country or entering the witness protection program.
Sorry to have to tell you this, but hoping, avoiding and postponing just aren’t good strategies. The only strategy that works is having an awkward conversation.
Everyone that I work with can answer this question without fail: “How do you start an awkward conversation?”
Their answer: “AWKWARDLY!” followed up by, “So let’s get started.”
There is a bit of an art to having an awkward conversation. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Schedule a time to have the awkward conversation. Never ambush!
- Remember that we manage behaviors, not feelings
- Recognize you can’t fix people, but you can change behaviors
- Focus exclusively on the issue, situation, or behavior, not the person
- Clearly describe:
- the problematic behavior
- the negative impact on the team
- the desired/requires behavior change
- the consequences if they don’t follow your directions
Most importantly… GET STARTED! AWKWARDLY!