Every employee is different. So when you have to deliver difficult messages, they’ll all receive – and react to – it differently.
Consider this example: Two employees are struggling and need to change course: Jane is quiet, sensitive. Carl is abrasive, defiant. Neither is easy to deal with, especially when you need to have a difficult conversation.
Is there a middle ground – a way to deliver tough feedback to a wide variety of employees?
Or must you scream, rant and rave with some and sandwich it with niceties for others?
“Neither of these approaches works really well,” says Andrew Parker, Director of Marketing and Communications with leadership trainers Zenger Folkman. “In either case, you’re inspiring poor performance and, in many cases, encouraging the poor performance to get worse.”
Instead, Parker suggests this approach that’s worked for some of the best leaders he knows when they must deliver difficult messages:
Be clear when you deliver difficult messages
Use clear language. Leaders sometimes muck up difficult messages by using complicated language that’s meant to make the issue sound important.
But if you’re concise about the issue, people will understand how important it is. No fluffy or complex words necessary.
The best way to keep clear and to-the-point: Prepare. Organize what you need to cover. Write some notes so you’re sure to discuss everything that’s been documented for the background, the issue and solution you’re aiming for. Practice it out loud or to a trusted colleague.
Even when you must deliver bad news that has just emerged, take a few moments to practice what you’ll say in a mirror first.
Keep it clean
You don’t want to sugarcoat anything, and you don’t want to put the issue on steroids.
If the conversation is about poor performance, avoid talking about what’s going right. Save that for another important chat. At the same time, avoid extremes: Don’t say the employee always or never does something – because that is rarely true.
It’s best to be upfront. You can’t minimize or maximize what’s going on if you rely strictly on facts.
If you want to correct behavior, give examples, times and places of what was wrong. If you have to relay bad news, give all the details you have and when you’ll be able to share more.
Tie it together
Preparation will help you follow through on one of the essential parts of difficult conversations: tying the actions to the consequences.
The best leaders draw a clear line between the issue and the repercussions.
If you’re correcting behavior, review how an employee’s actions lead to a specific consequence.
If you’re delivering bad news, explain what’s happened, how it will affect your people and how long you believe it will continue. Even if you don’t have all the answers, you can help alleviate stress and worry by telling employees when you’ll update them again and who is working on the next steps.
Make the plan
Difficult conversations and negative feedback won’t amount to much if they’re not wrapped up with an actionable, concrete plan.
You can use the expectation you had for a solution in the preparation phase as a starting point. But you’ll also want to get the employee’s insight on the solution and plan to accomplish it.
The key to an effective plan: Keep it small.
If you’re correcting behavior, focus on one task to fix. Even if the fix is more complex, break it down into single, incremental steps that you’ll both follow up on as they’re accomplished.
If it’s bad news, let employees be part of creating the plan to adapt and overcome the situation. But still break it down into incremental (hopeful) steps and wins.