What do you think when you hear the phrase “difficult conversation?”
Maybe you have a creeping sense of fear, dread, or trepidation. Perhaps your heart rate quickens and your palms get sweaty. Maybe the thought of having a difficult conversation leaves you looking for the nearest exit. Or perhaps you find yourself diving into that project you’ve been procrastinating on for months.
You’re not alone. Many leaders feel the same way. If you lead a team and you haven’t already been faced with a challenging situation that you had to address with a team member, you will eventually. Even when your hiring process is tried and true, you’re still working with humans. And humans are, well…human! Meaning we are all flawed, we make mistakes, we mess up, and we’re perfectly imperfectly in every way.
Whether your employee can never seem to show up for work on time, they’re not meeting important project deadlines, or they said something inappropriate to a fellow team member, situations will occur that you’ll need to address.
But how confident are you in handling difficult conversations when they arise?
Build Your Confidence
If you’re like many of the leaders I’ve worked with over the past 14 years, you don’t enjoy dealing with conflict and you might even actively avoid it at all costs.
Want to know something comforting? Most leaders don’t enjoy conflict. In fact, most would rather ignore the problem and hope it goes away on its own. But successful leaders know that ignoring problems only provides a breeding ground for more (and bigger) problems down the road.
Here’s a secret for you: Leaders who handle conflict really well are able to do so because they’ve spent a lot of time learning and practicing skills that help them become more proficient at handling difficult situations and conversations.
As the saying goes…practice builds confidence.
Which means, if you avoid handling minor conflicts with your team in the moment, then you’re not going to be prepared to tackle the bigger stuff when it comes up. Most small problems eventually snowball into bigger ones, and you can’t ignore the big stuff, my friend.
Working in leadership and human resources for the past 14 years has allowed me quite a few opportunities to practice and build my confidence around having difficult conversations. Some day when we can sit down and chat over a cup of coffee, I’ll tell you some stories that will make the hair on your head stand straight up and I’ll show you what I mean!
But for today, I want to talk about addressing employee issues while they’re small, so you practice and develop your conflict management skills that will help you avoid snowballing problems and aid you in handling difficult situations and conversations when you need to.
Having difficult conversations with your team members is a form of tough love that helps them learn, grow, and become stronger in their roles. And when you do it right, your employees will care even more deeply about your business and about the goals you have as a team. Win-win!
4 Tips for Handling Difficult Conversations
If you’re like most of my clients, you’d rather avoid difficult conversations as much as possible. That’s why the first two tips below are proactive measures to help you stop performance and behavioral issues in their tracks, while the final two focus on handling difficult conversations when you do need to have them.
1. Set Clear Expectations - Difficult conversations often stem from employee performance or behavioral issues, which stem from unclear or a lack of expectations. Expectations are simply rules or instructions for your team to follow. You can set expectations around areas, such as: work hours, deadlines, processes, communication, and more. When you set clear expectations with your team up front, they understand what is expected of them and you can limit behavioral issues like employees constantly showing up late for work or failure to meet important deadlines.
2. Build in Accountability - Once you set expectations with your team, you should follow up and make sure they’re following through. There are a lot of ways you can do this in a way that feels good. For example: If you expect your team to get an important project done by a certain date, consider helping your team establish milestones and accountability check-ins before the deadline to ensure everything is on track and there are no surprises. This will help them understand their role and you won’t be calling your client with bad news of a delayed project on the day it was due.
Think of the relationship between setting expectations and accountability like this: Setting expectations is “giving your word” and accountability is the “follow through” behind your word. Your reputation as a leader is tied directly to how well you set and follow through on what you expect from your team.
3. Address the Small Stuff - Don’t wait until a problem snowballs out of control and becomes a major issue before you address it. All problems or concerns should be addressed as soon as you become aware of them. You might be thinking, “It’s not that big of a deal.” But consider the impact that a consistently late employee has on your business. Lateness can lead to many other issues, such as a drop in team morale due to fellow team members picking up the slack along with brewing feelings of unfairness and resentment; delayed or extended project timelines and increases in labor costs; dissatisfied clients due to lack of attention and progress; which all leads to negatively impacting your financial performance. It’s much easier to talk to an employee about being late for work once, than it is to address the snowball effects of unaddressed issues.
4. Mindset Shift - As always, I have a mindset shift for you to help you strengthen your comfortability around handling difficult conversations. Have you ever played a team sport or a board game? How do you feel when you don’t know the rules for how to play the game? Perhaps you feel nervous, confused, unsure of what to do, or even how to win the game! This is exactly how your employees feel when they don’t know the rules for playing the game of your business. Use the tips above to help your team members feel more confident, clear, and excited about playing - and winning - the game. It’ll make all the difference.
By setting clear expectations, holding your team accountable, addressing the small stuff, and adopting a new mindset around taking these steps as a leader, you’ll be well on your way to avoiding performance and behavioral issues and handling difficult conversations like a pro when they do come up.
As the wonderful Brené Brown says, “Clear is kind.” When we’re clear with our team members, we’re being kind to them, so they know what we need from them and how they can show up and do their best work. When we take these simple, but powerful steps, we can enjoy working with our teams even more!