Guest AuthorMahalingam

The art of difficult conversations

By C Mahalingam

Managers must display confidence and empathy while dealing with employees

Business leaders are called upon these days to have difficult conversations with some of their team members for a variety of reasons. Difficult conversations are not necessarily a seasonal affair for managers. While difficult business situations accentuate the need for more frequent conversations, even during good times such conversations are required when a team member’s performance or behaviour does not measure up. Some of the typical situations that call for difficult conversations include: poor performance or behaviour, postponing a salary raise or promotion, lay- off, benching an employee when a project does not come about, releasing an employee from his comfort zone at work to a new role, transferring to a location that is not of employees’ choice and the like. Each of these situations involves conversations that are not necessarily pleasant in nature and may even trigger reaction from the employee. Managers, however, are expected to do a professional job of carrying out these conversations.

Training the managers

Many organisations tend to underestimate the importance of training their managers in delivering these conversations with comfort and confidence. It is often assumed that managers will develop the art of doing this all by themselves or will figure a way out when pushed into action. In reality, most managers need professional training imparted through role-plays and coaching in order to deliver these conversations with relative ease. Difficult conversations are often called so not because the

situations warranting these are difficult to handle, but precisely because managers having to do these conversations find it difficult and hard to do so.

Managers need a good blend of confidence, empathy, listening and perspective to handle these conversations with impact. Contrary to popular belief amongst many managers that these conversations are meant to be (a) short, (b) one-way, from manager to the employee concerned; (c) stern; and (d) delivered over the weekend so employee cools off during the weekend, difficult conversations in reality could be a (a) series of brief discussions; (b) straight-forward, not necessarily stern; (c) conveyed at the earliest and not postponed to a Friday evening and (d) two-way so employee reactions are listened to and addressed.

The purpose of difficult conversations is not to hurt the self-esteem or career prospects of the employee. If anything, these conversations are meant to leave theself-esteem intact and retain or restore the employee’s engagement. Even in situations, where the difficult conversation centres around a lay-off and the employee is informed of his separation, the conversation has to leave the employee wanting to play a good brand ambassador” for the company even after his separation. This is possible only if the conversation is carried out by the manager with empathy, support for finding another job, severance package where applicable and what it contains and how this will be administered. Equipping managers with all the vital pieces of information that will help drive this conversation towards the desired impact will be key.

In difficult times, when managers are called upon to do many such separations, it can prove very toxic and leave the managers completely emotionally drained. Giving meditation or yoga training for such managers would also be a prerequisite to ensure that the manager remains calm and composed after these conversations

Company values

Adherence to company values while dealing with and delivering such conversations needs to be an essential part of the training and preparation. It is unfortunate that not enough attention is paid to this aspect, often under pressure to execute these conversation and report compliance or completion to higher authorities. This reduces the entire handling to a ritual rendering the much touted organizational values meaningless.

Performance conversation with employees not meeting their goals is an often an occasion for difficult conversation. Again, here when the intent is to help the employee overcome his or her performance challenge, the tone and tenor of the conversation will be very different than when the objective is to simply dump negative feedback with a message to shape up or ship out. Trained managers do this with grace and poise and commit their support and help to overcome the difficult situation the employee is in. Conversations that create butterflies in the stomach of managers also are in the areas of compensation discussions. Managers need special training to handle this so that they do not take the escape route of blaming either HR or the “management” as though the managers themselves are not part of the management.

Preparation is critical and well-designed training interventions can equip managers to do a good job here. And HR has a clear task cut out in making this possible.

MaliC. Mahalingam is a leading HR Thought Leader in India. He was Executive Vice-President & Chief People Officer with Symphony Services Corporation and served in organisations like IBM, HP, Phillips, Scandent Technologies etc. He is now a Leadership Coach, HR Strategic Consultant and visiting faculty at some of IIM’s.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated June 10, 2015)

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