Having Hard Conversations With Subordinates
This is a skill that every leader needs in spades. It is a must have, not a nice to have, skill if you want to become the leader you always wanted to work for. This was a recent post to Ask Eli. Ask Eli is a great place to get practical answers to all your leadership and organizational cultural questions.
My subordinate is performing his duties well, but his interactions with co-workers are abysmal. He talks too loud and too often in meetings and pretty much bowls people over in one- on- one interaction as well. What do I do with this guy?
Hard conversations at work are a reality of any work situation. How we handle them is what separates highly effective people from average performers. The conversation to be had here is about delivering potentially unsettling news to a subordinate. This conversation is about helping a subordinate understand the destructive effect his influence has on those around the office, as well as making efforts to preserve his identity (ego) in the process. When people can separate their behavior from their identity, they are much more apt to hear the feedback, and make positive changes. Let’s look at how an effective leader would handle this situation.
Leading others is primarily about our influence relationship with our followers. Do we have the track record in place with them to be influential or not? If you can honestly say yes, then we will have an easier time setting up the conversation. If not, then you have a little more work to do. Let’s assume you do have a positive track record for the time being. First, this is a face-to-face conversation and not one to be done via email or phone call. You need to be able to read all the cues that are being presented during that conversation, and email and phone drastically limit your ability.
Set up a time when you and your subordinate can meet. Let’s call him John. If he asks what the meeting is about, you can tell him it about leadership development. This will initially set the tone that this is not a meeting about coming down on him. As his supervisor, you owe it to him and his fellow workers to bring John’s perceived behavior to his attention. It is the most caring and effective action you could take.
You will want to do a little bit of preparation before the meeting. I find that committing the following to writing really helps to clarify the conversation. What is the ideal end goal of this meeting? What is your purpose for calling the meeting? What is not the purpose of this meeting?
Here is what I would write down. “The purpose of this meeting is to bring to John’s attention that a perception of him is keeping him from being a more effective executive in your company. The purpose is not to negatively criticize him or come down hard on him. The ideal end goal would be for John to hear the information you brought to him and seriously consider it as something that could increase his influence around the company and beyond.” By doing this little bit of homework you now have a very straightforward and helpful way to start your conversation.
After you use an introduction such as the one seen above, you need to take another vital step: ask permission from John to share the perceptions with him and then brainstorm some ways to increase his influence via addressing the perceptions. This step reinforces that you are on his side and want to help him become a better professional, not just reprimand him. It is also inviting him to an adult conversation where you and he look at the behaviors as just that, behaviors, and not John’s identity.
If you gain John’s approval, which most likely you will, then you need to give him some concrete examples of how his past behavior has kept him from being influential with his fellow employees. Often people need to see their behavior linked to consequences in order to see how it is affecting them. This is another place you need to do some prep work and have your examples very clear and prepared. Make sure you don’t water down these examples . Sometimes when people talk to stronger personalities like John, they weaken their stance because they are afraid of the response. Remember, that if you can help John see what he is doing with others, it will benefit him in the long run.
In this process you want to invite John to share his perspective of the situation. He needs to have some say in this conversation. Hearing his perspective can help you and him figure out the best course of action. You can do this by saying something like, “Now that I have let you know my perception of the situation, what is your take on the it?” If John can see that he may at times be bulldozing people, then you are ready for the brainstorming phase of the conversation – figuring out ways he can create more space for others, and figuring out why he feels the need to bulldoze situations. If John is very defensive in his reaction, you will need to back up a step and reiterate the purposes for the meeting. You need to reassure him that this is not about criticizing him unfairly, everyone has growth edges, and that you are trying to help him professionally by bringing this to his attention.
One of the actions you can have John take is to track how much he is talking in group settings. He could track how many times he feels the need to respond to what is being said. If he finds that it is a large proportion of the things being said triggers a reaction, then he will have to pick and choose his moments better. He needs to reflect on the acronym WAIT – “Why am I talking?” Ask him to write it on top of his notepad at meetings as a visible reminder.
Another way to handle this situation is to introduce a concept called “Limited Resources”. “Limited Resources” is an experiment he can conduct in public settings where he is only allowed to add comments to three things within in the meeting unless specifically asked to do so. This will cause him to prioritize what he thinks are the items important enough to comment on.
Another exercise he could try is to make sure he is capturing the message before he responds. John is only allowed to comment when he has demonstrated that he has heard and understood the message others are sending before adding his opinion on the matter. That could be by paraphrasing back to the sender the essence of the message, or by simply repeating what he has heard. This can operate as a mechanism to slow down John’s thought process to more of a listening stance. People probably feel that he is not a good listener. Reassure John that practicing these newer behaviors will have a positive effect on his ability to influence others. Offer your support and coaching on the matter and follow through with him. Changing ingrained behaviors can be challenging. Only with the support of a leader who shows genuine interest can John make progress in his leadership development.
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