Difficult Performers

Difficult conversations are the ones we try to put off. They are the ones we go into being too defensive. They are the ones we go into under a full head of self righteous steam convinced of the sanctity of our position. They are the conversations we tell others we can handle but truthfully we dread. How do you go about preparing for a difficult conversation? 

I want to focus today on difficult conversations with a high potential individual. That high potential person will be intelligent, well educated, possess great experience and be results driven. She has great ideas and works long hours to bring in the numbers. The problem is no one wants to work with her.  Her deputies are in your office weekly with reports of behavior that could trigger a reprimand in others. His behavior betrays a lack of sensitivity and leaves others feeling unappreciated and demeaned. You would act but you really do not want to disrupt the results they deliver. 

Initially you figured you would wait until rush was over because we are all under stress during rush, right? But the busy season is over and if anything the complaints have gotten more frequent. You’ve tried to raise the issue in a round about way but you are walking a tightrope not wanting to identify who has been in to see you for fear she will retaliate. You are past wondering if you have a few disgruntled employees gunning for their boss. Now you are hearing about concerns from peers whose people are coming to them. 

You know you need to address this but this person has been a performer. You have set aside addressing the issue because you hoped with time and a few nuanced suggestions from you this would self correct. Well it is time because now the president just left your office after talking to you about it. Now what? 

The time to deal with an issue is when it is small, not waiting until the president comes to talk to you about it. Even when there seems to be a reasonable explanation for a problem it is best to address it early. An ounce of prevention may be great but the problem we opened with was allowed to fester until it is now impacting you. Great advice but you missed your chance. Now it is festering; what do you do? Same principle applies; address it now before it gets even worse.  

In preparing for a difficult conversation, acknowledge to yourself that it will be difficult. Plan accordingly. Take time to write a problem statement. Include in the statement, what is the issue, what evidence do you have that it is an issue, what impact is the issue having and what would you want to see if the issue is resolved. If you have trouble with any of these questions do some homework. For example if your evidence of a problem is hearsay you may need to observe some of the behavior yourself. The examples of the issue should be specific and not general. Telling someone “people are saying” does not help confront the reality of the situation.  

Writing out the problem statement helps you prepare a concise issue summary for use during the conversation. This can be helpful if you tend to expound and run on under stress. If you cannot concisely write it down it is unlikely you will be able to concisely express your thoughts under pressure of a difficult conversation. Note also that the summary does not include a resolution plan. It asks what things look like if the issue is resolved would be but the steps for resolution should be jointly developed as part of the discussion. 

The process you will follow is to first inform the employee you have some feedback for them. Pick a time for the discussion when both you and your deputy are available and ready to talk.  Ask if the time is good and reschedule if it is not. Tell them you would like to share the feedback and then want to hear their perceptions. Tell them your objective is arriving at a shared understanding on an issue and what next steps should be.  

Share the issue as you have concisely stated it including any observations or other evidence of the behavior. Remember this is a conversation not an effort to get a conviction. Ask the employee to brief back what you told them. Keep going back and forth until you believe the employee understands what you are trying to say. Do not be surprised if the first few playbacks by the employee have some emotional content, just work through it until they demonstrate an understanding – acceptance is not needed at this stage. 

At this point switch roles and ask the employee for their perception of the situation. Be ready for some emotion but stay centered and redirect back to the issue. Be ready with some patience. After you have the employee’s perception it is your turn to play it back to the employee. Be ready to go back and forth until you and the employee agree you understand their perspective.  

By this point you both have a shared understanding of the perceptions, even if those perceptions conflict. The next step is to define a shared intent in the form of what the situation looks like if the issue were resolved. Once you have agreement on the end state, work together to come up with a plan to address the issue. People often have developed patterns of behavior that are hard to break and you may need to be ready to provide support and feedback over a period of time to help the employee change the behavior. 

This should be a direct conversation. Do not open by telling the employee how valuable they are and then diving into the difficult conversation. I know people who open criticism with “You know you’re a really nice guy, but…” There is no analgesic benefit to these opening compliments. Get to the topic and stay on it throughout the conversation. 

Don’t be surprised if you have some emotional build up that you need to discharge after the conversation. Staying centered takes focus and energy. Working through the emotion of a difficult conversation while staying objective exacts a price. Be ready with a healthy way of discharging that emotion afterward. 

So in summary, deal with issues early, be direct, prepare an issue statement, stay centered and have an after action plan to dispense of any emotions you hold in check during the discussion.  

These conversations may be difficult but they are not impossible. 


Joe Thompson

© 2016 Differentiating Strategies, LLC