By Dana Brownlee, President, Professionalism Matters, Inc.
One of my close friends is a fitness trainer who often encounters difficult clients disagreeing with his professional judgment and demanding changes to their fitness regiment, nutrition plan, etc. He’s shared his frustration with me time after time as he tries to placate them and provide great “customer service” in the midst of delivering a difficult message (i.e., they need to lose weight to improve their health). I gave him the same advice I give many managers and leaders: Develop a handful of “conversation crutches” you can sprinkle in here and there to make the difficult conversation a lot easier (and quicker in many cases).
If you polled 100 managers asking what they dreaded most in their leadership role, I’m sure many would say they’d prefer a trip to the oral surgeon to having a difficult discussion with an employee. No one wants to tell an employee he or she is not meeting expectations in one area or another. We all know that no one is perfect—everyone has weaknesses (which we prefer to call developmental areas J)—but the thought of having to provide that constructive criticism or provide feedback that may cause conflict is gut wrenching nonetheless. To make matters worse, we realize that as managers, it’s a large part of our job (if we’re doing our job) to help others identify and improve areas of weakness. Deep down we know that the best bosses are not the ones who tell us we’re so wonderful that they can’t think of anything to improve but the ones who highlight areas for improvement and motivate us to become even better.
Delivering constructive criticism may never feel good, but it’s certainly a critical element along the path of employee development. Unfortunately, many managers make one of two common mistakes. They often either…
We all agree that we HATE having these discussions. So the question is: How can you deliver the message in such a way that gets the point across while preserving the relationship? While there’s no foolproof easy answer, a key for me has been developing “conversation crutches”—easy-to-remember phrases/vignettes you can sprinkle into conversations as needed to help deliver a difficult message with candor, tact, and sensitivity.
Approach #1: Ask employees to evaluate the situation or identify the issue/development area first. This is a powerful technique because it not only typically softens the feedback you need to give but it also provides a deeper coaching opportunity because it provides insight into their perspective. This insight can further inform your subsequent feedback for them as appropriate.
Approach #2: Emphasize that your responsibility as their manager is to point out areas of weakness. Indeed, you’re helping them by raising difficult issues.
Approach #3: Part of the difficulty with delivering constructive criticism is that it can be hard to do it without the employee feeling attacked and becoming defensive. As a result, it’s important to remember crutch phrases that minimize this potential impact.
To enhance the effectiveness of these interventions/discussions in general, it can help immensely if you establish ground rules/practices early on before there’s a need for a difficult discussion. Some of these practices might include agreeing to debriefing meetings afterward to consider what worked and what didn’t, conducting standard feedback sessions every 90 or 120 days, or agreeing to ask permission to raise a “hard issue” when necessary.
Although these crutches can be helpful, don’t misconstrue them as a blanket recommendation to soften all constructive criticism or difficult messaging. Sometimes, softening the message can be the wrong move, so you should be as direct as your personal comfort level and the maturity of the relationship will allow. Often, it’s appropriate (and necessary) to be firm, direct, and to the point. However, if you have situations where you run the risk of avoiding the conversation/issue because you just don’t know how to deliver the message, consider using these “crutches” to help you say what needs to be said.
Dana Brownlee is a keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and teambuilding consultant. She is president of Professionalism Matters, Inc., a boutique professional development corporate training firm. Her firm operates www.professionalismmatters.comand www.meetinggenie.comand latest publications are instructional DVDs “Are You Running a Meeting or Drowning in Chaos?” and “5 Secrets to Virtually Cut Your Meeting Time in Half!” She can be reached at email@example.com.