Your employee blows past a deadline. Again. Or they miss the mark in discussions with a client. Or they are driving their colleagues batty with unprofessional behavior. Whatever the problem, their performance is not up to par—which means it’s time for a tough conversation.
Of course, giving negative feedback is unpleasant at an almost visceral level. So too often, leaders “keep on kicking the can, hoping that the issue is going to go away,” says Brooke Vuckovic, a clinical professor of leadership at Kellogg.
But when you avoid these conversations, you do more than abdicate your responsibility to develop this specific employee: you risk letting down your whole team. That’s because the culture of an organization isn’t what you say it is—it’s the “behavior that you consistently tolerate,” she says.
So as you prepare for a tough conversation about your employee’s performance—and prepare you must—what should you keep in mind?
Vuckovic has extensive experience coaching executives on how to deliver negative feedback. In a recent The Insightful Leader Live webinar, she shares the three things leaders often forget to do and why they’re each so critical.
This sounds like a no-brainer, right? If you didn’t have a reason to talk, then you wouldn’t talk! But Vuckovic breaks this into both a big-P “Purpose” and a small-p “purpose.”
To clarify your Purpose “is to understand why you must have this conversation—beyond the specific behavior at hand,” she says. That is, what do you want the conversation to accomplish for you, for your employee, for the relationship between the two of you, or for the broader organization? Perhaps the Purpose is to better serve your organization’s clients or to foster more trust between team members. Or perhaps the Purpose is simply to challenge yourself as a leader to build your own capacity for tough conversations.
Whatever your Purpose may be, “getting clear on that is going to give you some momentum,” says Vuckovic. “It’s going to allow you to roll over that emotional speed bump.”
The small-p “purpose,” on the other hand, is your goal for the single conversation for which you are preparing. “My top hint here is to identify things that you can absolutely control,” she says. You cannot control whether your employee overhauls their behavior; you can control whether you raise the performance issue with clarity and then set a specific date to follow up on that issue.
“Make sure your expectations here aren’t very high,” says Vuckovic. “I hope that you exceed those expectations, but it is far better to go in assuming that you’re going to make a little bit of progress on an issue … than it is to go in hoping that the whole issue is going to be solved.”
Leaders also commonly fail to prepare for the (very high) likelihood that, during the conversation, some new piece of information will emerge that will challenge their understanding of the issue. “If you assume that, then you are less likely to be surprised and thrown on your heels,” says Vuckovic.
To prepare for this possibility, she suggests asking yourself a few prompts: What’s your story of the problem—and what story might this other person tell about the same problem?
You will also want to reflect on whether you have in some way contributed to the issue at hand. “Have I turned a blind eye to something? Was I unclear on what my expectations were?” she asks.
Finally, she advises considering in advance what information might make you reconsider your own position—and then, in the conversation itself, taking care to solicit the employee’s perspectives directly. “When you say, ‘I’m interested in your perspectives on this,’ simply by asking the question, you are less likely to defend against things that they raise, and you’re giving them space for having that conversation,” she says.
In the drive to plow through to the end of the conversation, leaders too often fail to think through the skills required to foster a productive discussion. “They can lose sight of the absolute discipline and rigor and presence that’s required for the rest of the conversation, which is where the learning is going to occur,” Vuckovic says.
After delivering difficult feedback, for instance, it’s important to give your colleague a chance to respond. As they share their perspective, she advises adopting the “looping” strategy of checking in and rephrasing what they said to ensure they feel heard—not verbatim, but “in the most eloquent language you can muster, so making them sound as good as you possibly can, and then saying, ‘Did I get that right?’”
You’ll repeat this process until both of you are confident you understand their perspective. “You’re de-escalating and they’re feeling heard,” she says.
You will also want to have an exit strategy. If your colleague freezes up—or alternatively becomes very emotional—it can be helpful to suggest taking a break (“let’s put a pin in this”) and then set a time in the future to discuss again.
But even if the conversation is going quite smoothly, it is important to wrap up in a way that feels complete. “You want to ensure that, by the end of your conversation, all agreements are completely clear to all parties—and that may simply be that you are going to talk about this again tomorrow,” she says. “You’ve clarified next steps and your commitments to one another.”
As the leader who started the conversation, the onus is on you to ensure that follow-up happens. Sure, you might leave it to your colleague to set up that next appointment, but if you notice that they haven’t, you should do it yourself. Because one way or another, the situation must be resolved. Hopefully, the resolution will be satisfactory—but even if it isn’t, you will want to know that as you plan your next move.
Without a clear plan to follow up, “people can lose so much time.”
For more tips on planning for tough conversations—including conversations with your own boss—check out the entire webinar.
"Previously published in Kellogg Insight. Reprinted with permission of the Kellogg School of Management.