Turn Confrontations With Subordinates Into Opportunities

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine

Oct. 6 — One of the hardest parts of any manager’s job is talking with subordinates about problems in their work, but consultants say honest dialogue must happen.

“Most managers, especially early in their careers, are not good” at such hard conversations, Josh Bersin, principal at Bersin by Deloitte in Oakland, Calif., told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 6. Managers “might intimidate or upset” the subordinate, or leave the matter for the dreaded annual review, he said. By contrast, a “new process” examined in a joint white paper published by Deloitte and Redwood City, Calif.-based BetterWorks alleviates such pressures through “regular check-ins” between managers and subordinates, he said.

“Forcing that communication” about performance improvement can “dramatically improve the culture of the company,” Bersin said.

“There are three dimensions” to such difficult conversations, Kris Duggan, CEO of performance management software company BetterWorks, told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 6. Based on research from the white paper, he emphasized that such talks should be two-way. In the “old world,” Duggan said, the manager would say, “Here’s another example of how you disappointed me.” By contrast, the “new world” has the manager saying, “Here’s what I need from you to be successful. What do you need from me to be successful?”

The conversation should be forward-looking to what needs to improve, rather than backward-looking to what the subordinate did wrong, Duggan added. Finally, the conversation should be “data driven,” meaning that the manager’s preset goals and the employee’s goals should be considered and detailed, fact-based feedback should be given, “not just what you remember from last week or by digging through e-mails.”

“If you continue to have performance problems after that, it’s easier to see what adjustments you need to make,” Duggan said.

‘Courageous Conversations.’

“What if what we call ‘performance management’ is simply the primary relationship between leaders and team members, and the primary tool is simply conversation?” Colin T. McLetchie, president of Arlington, Va.-based coaching and organizational consultancy Five Ways Forward, said. “The problem with most performance situations is that no one has had the right conversation.”

Such talks should be “courageous conversations,” he said, with “two or more willing participants, two or more present participants and two or more caring participants.” The manager should have “a prepared opening or kickoff” for the conversation, and should ask the subordinate if he or she is ready to talk. If not, because for instance the subordinate is distracted by a family crisis, the manager should schedule the conversation for the soonest appropriate time.

“Key opener components,” he said, are to “start with the value of the employee and their contributions; use ‘and’ not ‘but’” to introduce the subject of the discussion, which “allows both statements,” the praise and the criticism, “to be true and equally valid.” The manager should also “show genuine concern,” he said.

For example, McLetchie said, in the case of “the formerly strong performer who has an unexpected shift in performance and/or engagement,” the manager could start by saying, “Marquita, you have long been an outstanding performer who I could always rely on both to get the job done and in a collaborative and productive way. Recently that Marquita hasn’t been showing up here, and I’m concerned. What’s going on?”

McLetchie was speaking Oct. 5 at a conference in Tysons Corner, Va., sponsored by Weston, Fla.-based HR software company Ultimate Software.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at mbermangorvine@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com

For More Information

The Deloitte-BetterWorks white paper can be downloaded by visiting https://www.betterworks.com/deloitte/.

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