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5 tips to better manage difficult performance conversations

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Ang Brennan is head of learning and talent at Insights.

Research conducted among hybrid teams shows that one-third of U.S. hybrid workers would like more one-on-one time with their managers to get feedback on their performance.

This is all very well when feedback is positive; however, critical feedback is something that most of us would rather avoid giving. After all, it’s in our nature to be liked as humans. Receiving feedback is also often difficult. We feel threatened or personally attacked and often immediately go on the defensive. But for employers to maintain a productive team environment, it is essential that managers and other leaders are able to give and receive feedback effectively.

Giving feedback to develop others is the nurturing, caring thing to do. Feedback helps team members learn more about themselves and how their behavior affects others. It can prompt different behavior or new actions that they would otherwise not consider, as well as give them the opportunity to learn and improve performance.

That is why as HR/L&D professionals, it’s incumbent upon us to focus on the growth opportunities that can come from well-handled performance conversations. In my experience, instead of avoiding negative feedback, there are a few simple ways to turn those tricky discussions into development opportunities that build awareness and positively impact company culture.

1. Signpost a difficult conversation

No one wants to feel ambushed. Be honest and signpost a difficult conversation in advance — for example, “I’d like to talk to you about what happened in that meeting” — so the other person knows exactly what you’re going to discuss with them before they enter the room. This also gives them time to think, rather than be put on the spot.

Also, ask the employee how they prefer to receive feedback; some people respond well to a very direct approach setting out the key points, while others prefer a lighter touch. Developing a growth mindset means being open to learning what works and what doesn’t work with certain individuals and acting on it.

2. Get on the same page

Make sure you structure difficult performance conversations, which can help all parties stay focused. Invite the other person to tell their side of the story and really listen hard. Perception or unconscious bias can easily distort events and cloud our judgment, which can make difficult conversations even harder.

At Insights, we use the D4 feedback model to ensure everyone is on the same page. Start with the data; this is all about establishing facts.

Then, move on to depth of feeling: How did the employee feel about what happened? Understand the dramatic interpretation: What meaning do you give the situation? And finally, do: What was said or done? What was the outcome?

3. Stay curious

Bear in mind that the vast majority of people try to do a good job; employees do not generally come into work trying to cause friction or underperform. Go into difficult conversations with an open mind, knowing that the intention was probably quite different from the eventual outcome.

Another way of putting this? Take the most respectful interpretation. This approach also sets a powerful leadership example for others to follow and can positively influence company culture.

4. Regularly take the temperature of the room

There might be occasions when the conversation doesn’t go as planned and emotions takes over. It is important to take the temperature of the room and take a break before things boil over.

You can usually tell if somebody isn’t feeling great about a situation; the onus is on you to say “I’m getting the feeling that this isn’t quite working for us. Let’s take a few minutes to take a breather and gather our thoughts.” Also make sure there is a satisfactory conclusion to the meeting and that no one goes away feeling uncomfortable, unhappy or uncertain about the outcome.

5. Understand communication styles

A large part of miscommunication when having difficult conversations comes from the assumption that others value the same communication style as us and will react to things in the same way we would. This is not the case. Understanding differences between our communication styles and learning how to honor those differences — particularly when it comes to having tricky conversations — is crucial to maintain a healthy team culture.

When handled well, difficult conversations can create awareness for both the giver and receiver. They can also be invaluable nurturing experiences that lead to personal development and growth.

To enable employees to be the very best version of themselves, as HR professionals it’s incumbent upon us to increase awareness, be respectful and curious, and focus on the growth opportunities that can come from well-handled performance conversations.

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