How To Have Tough Conversations?

There are two quotes from my favourite business mentor Keith Cunningham that related to having tough conversations with underperforming team members.

1. Nothing changes until the unspoken is said

2. All upsets are caused by unmet expectations.

As business owners we are mostly aware of situations where we have a staff member not doing their job to an expected standard and that we must have a conversation with them. But tough conversations can be a hard and confronting thing to do, so how do we have them and apply point 1 above.

First, we need to deal with point 2 above. Is the person aware of the expectations for their role? If not, then that is on us as the employer for not making it absolutely crystal clear and have the person acknowledge they understand what is expected of them.

Their expectation of us as the employer is to provide an environment for them to meet the above expectation and of course pay them. Make sure you are doing that?

When someone is not carrying out what is expected of them in a job, it is because they don’t know how, or they don’t care (or both).

Never initiate a tough conversation if you are not in the right headspace. You need to be fully present with the person and be operating from an open honest perspective, with a view to finding a solution and getting the expectations matched and agreed to.

My suggested format for a tough conversation is to firstly get the permission of the person you are speaking with to have this chat and positioning an end goal. This can be done by saying something like,

“Thanks for catching up with me. There are a few things I have noticed with your performance that we need to discuss, that may be a little hard for you to hear. I am hoping by the end of this chat we can both agree on a way forward that works for both of us, would that be OK with you?”

Next ask them a broad question about their underperformance and give them the opportunity to take some ownership, by saying something like,

“So how do you think you have been going with [insert relevant expectation for the role, eg a certain KPI or target number they are not hitting].

Now listen and take notes, if need be, ask further open ended questions to clear on what their perspective is.

Next present them with the facts on their performance with the relevant metrics or measures. Note that this must be a measurable number or Yes or No. For example,

“So, your role needs you to be completing X number of widgets delivered each week, currently and for the last 4 weeks you have only been delivering Y widgets, when previously you were delivering X widgets.”

Now we need them to take ownership of the situation and commit to a plan going forwards to meet the expectation, that we will keep them accountable on. We can do this by saying something like,

“What is your plan going forwards from this meeting to get back on track and hitting your targets consistently?”

Now we take notes and then repeat back to them what they have just stated and that we will check in with them to make sure they remain on track with the expectation of the role. Ask them also if they think there is anything that may prevent them from meeting this expectation, then address their concerns accordingly.

If you think it is relevant, remind them of the termination policy of the business.

Finally, summarise all of the above, asking them if they think what you have discussed and the agreed expectations are correct from their perspective. Thank them and tell them you are looking forward to them getting back on track.

One of two things will happen in a situation like this.

1. The person will step up and begin hitting targets again

2. The person will step off and make room for someone who wants to meet the expectations and they can move onto another position that is better for them.

Both above are a win for the business and the person if they choose to see it that way. The only time this can be a loss is when the conversation is not had.

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