By Francis Wade
Tuesday, 19 February 2013.
As the recession continues, the number
of difficult conversations that managers must have each week has skyrocketed,
but they have hardly got better at having them.
The result? More discord, stress and
misunderstandings, which can only be resolved with a new commitment to
continuous skill improvement.
In this respect, we in Jamaica are not alone. All
over the world, the recession has forced managers into unprecedented
confrontations with employees, customers, suppliers and stockholders. These
'new' conversations are sometimes unpleasant and may sound like this:
Your performance needs to improve, or you'll be
I cannot pay you now;
What can you do for me for half that price?;
The board is losing confidence in your abilities;
We need you to shift to working part-time.
In my last column, I highlighted an increased level
of callous managerial behaviour, which stems partially from a lack of the
necessary skills to execute hard-to-have conversations.
Most people hate these conversations with a
passion. They end up avoiding the situation and the person for as long as
possible, hoping that the problem will resolve itself without confrontation.
Many managers also hide behind email, formal
letters and written changes in policy. Dialogue is so risky that they avoid it
at all costs, hoping to send hints through other, safer channels. Rarely do
these indirect tactics work.
How can local managers develop the skills needed to
initiate difficult conversations confidently?
1. Undertake Trial Runs:
Using videotaped feedback, I have trained hundreds
of managers to have tough interactions. My experience supports the research: a
manager who practises a difficult conversation and gets some feedback can
dramatically improve his or her performance.
Imagine that you have been selected for a basketball
free-throw competition to be held a month from now.
If you sink two shots in a row, you will
automatically win $10 million. If you accept the challenge, you'll likely
purchase a ball, find the nearest court, and show up every day to practise.
As obvious as this example might be, I'm amazed at
how few managers will pull a colleague aside to ask for help in planning a
challenging conversation. Frequently, managers believe that they shouldn't need
to ask for help.
Those who do ask for advice sometimes don't get the
help they need, because they spend too much time discussing abstract ideas.
Instead, it's better to do as many role-plays as possible; they are the
shortcut to better performance.
In our basketball example, you would spend most of
your time shooting, getting short feedback, and reshooting rather than talking
2. Get Trained:
The number of senior executives who fail to execute
these conversations successfully tells me that repetition without learning is
no guarantee of improvement.
Structured workshops that rely heavily on
repetition under simulated conditions can help managers internalise the best
practices. Once they understand the core principles, it's much easier to prepare
for a tough conversation.
There are also a number of books that are quite
useful. I recommend Crucial
Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler.
3. Refresh the Training:
Unfortunately, these skills decay over time. Under
normal circumstances, a manager might easily not have a difficult conversation
for a year. Then, during a performance evaluation period, he or she may need to
conduct ten difficult reviews in the space of two weeks.
Managers' lack of practice quickly shows, but by
then it's too late. The deadline must be met, and everyone suffers as a result.
Experienced business people know the impact these
conversations have on profits, performance and motivation. Some would even say
that companies' success depends on people's ability to conduct powerful
confrontations and provide course-corrections, and no company can make progress
Either way, it seems better to improve the odds
with persistent practice than to wing it and hope that things miraculously work
Francis Wade is president of
Framework Consulting and author of 'Bill's Im-Perfect Time Management Adventure'.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org