Managing courageous conversations is something most managers dread at the best of times. As I am writing this article in the middle of the Covid-19 lockdown, the need for managers to continually talk with their team members is even more important. It is eqully important for those working remotely as it is for those many key workers across a range of industries and services who are keeping the country running and us all safe.

Think back to just a few weeks ago.  Would we have imagined then that we would be asking employees how they are feeling?  How their family is, if they are keeping safe?  And really meaning it?  Like we mean it now?

These are certainly unprecedented times.

We are now genuinely concerned for the well-being of everyone around us.  Obviously, we will all take some lessons from our Covid-19 experiences.  Perhaps one lesson we can all take on board is understanding the importance of caring for our colleagues and employees in the workplace.

We can’t wait until a colleague is unwell.  We need to gather up the courage to check in on them, both now in these unprecedented times and always.  It is crucial that we keep these conversations open with those around us and pay attention to how they are behaving and feeling.  This takes courage.

How can a manager successfully hold a courageous conversation with an employee at a time like this and maintain his/her commitment, motivation and engagement?

The daunting nature of managing courageous conversations is amplified during a challenging period, whether that is due to a pandemic like Covid-19 or other business pressures.  A manager will have many other pressures to deal with at a time like this while employees may downplay the need for the difficult conversation considering other issues like potential threats to jobs and their livelihoods.

All this places a great deal of pressure on the conversation.

Why are these conversations so challenging?

In challenging times the courageous conversation will arouse even greater emotions and additional layers of complexity are added to an already fraught situation.  These conversations take a heavy toll on both the manager and employee, according to CMI in their 2015 survey:

  • 66% of employees feel stressed or anxious if they know a difficult conversation is coming
  • 43% of senior managers admit to losing their temper and shouting
  • 40% of senior managers have admitted to panicking and telling a lie

The main cause of the stress and anxiety in normal circumstances is fear.  In the above study, CMI found that the main causes of this fear were:

  • Not knowing how the other person will respond
  • Not being able to get a point across clearly
  • Being in a confrontational situation
  • Getting upset or emotional (either self or the other person)

Now, consider the increased fear, stress and anxiety being experienced when your company is in a challenging situation.  Employees will also fear the outcome of these conversations.

The cost of getting it wrong (or just avoiding it)

There are two different elements to consider when managing courageous conversations.

First, you simply need to have the conversation.  You are considering having the conversation because there is a problem to be solved or an employee behaviour that needs to change.  It is a now or never situation.  You either need to have it now or forget about it completely.  Obviously, the latter choice (forgetting about it) means that you also choose to take on the consequences far down the line.  The problem will not be solved and the employee behaviour will not be changed.

Second, your team is looking to you for direction and clarity.  For example, if a colleague is perhaps underperforming and seems unfocused and you fail to check in on them, then you are sending a very mixed message to your team.  You are also actively sowing disharmony.  Believe it or not, your team want you to deal with the problem.  They want to see you checking in with the individual to make sure s/he is OK and if they need any support.  Ignoring it is not an option.  Nor is a fudged attempt to sweep it away.

There are significant consequences to not managing courageous conversations:

  1. Ripple effect (part 1) – the problem behaviour that you would liked to have changed (but didn’t) is now normalised in your team.  By choosing not to have the conversation, or by being ineffective, you have sent a message to your team that this behaviour is acceptable within your team and that you don’t really care.
  2. Ripple effect (part 2) – the problem behaviour is now demoralising and demotivating your team.  They are wondering why they bother to put in the effort when it is so easy to behave differently with no consequences.
  3. Productivity/performance drops – decreasing motivation typically leads to a drop in productivity and other performance measures such as quality and customer service.
  4. No development/growth – the problem behaviour now has the perfect conditions in which to become a dominant behaviour in your team, as does the perceived lack of care.  Perhaps you feel it isn’t ‘loud’ or ‘visible’ enough to be dominant.  It doesn’t seem that important to you.  Rest assured that your team can see it and feel the unfairness of it all.  It is important to them.  Their development and growth can be hampered in this situation as too much attention is paid to the problem behaviour and they don’t feel cared for or valued.
  5. Vote with their feet – skilled employees want to work in an environment where their skills and talent can shine, be valued, cared for and grow.  Remember, skilled employees always have options and they will take their opportunity when the chance arises.  You lose valuable employees.  Those decent employees who stay will be stifled as long as the problem behaviour is allowed to persist.

9 Tips for Managing Courageous Conversations in Unprecedented Times

“The time is now” – the title of a song by Moloko (that happens to be on my current playlist of favourite songs) is apt when asking yourself ‘when should I deal with this behaviour?  When will I have this difficult conversation?’  The time is now, right now.  Not tomorrow or next week.  Now.

So, avoiding procrastination is important as we have already discussed above.  What other tips can help you handle the courageous conversations correctly in these difficult times?  Here are a few:

  1. Be clear and decisive

In challenging times, your team will be looking to you to get a sense of purpose and direction.  They are also looking to you to interpret whether the organisation is handing the challenging times competently.  By dealing with difficult conversations quickly and effectively, you are sending a clear, positive and decisive message.

2. Keep in touch with your team

If your team sees that you are approachable and ready to listen, they are more likely to approach you at an early stage.  This gives you an opportunity to act decisively before the problem gets out of control or becomes a habit.

3. Have a quiet word

It is often easier to act when you first see a sign that something is wrong.  Have a quiet chat with the person(s) about the issue and discuss what can be done to rectify it.  This is often enough in the early stages to avoid the conversation becoming overly difficult, especially if you are seen as approachable.  In challenging times, your employee will appreciate a chance to reset the record and avoid being subjected to a future difficult conversation.

If it is too late for a quiet word…..

4. Reframe the conversation

Remember, most employees don’t do badly or make mistakes on purpose and they may be unaware that they are causing a problem.  So, reframe the conversation in your mind – from a ‘difficult conversation’ to a ‘coaching opportunity’ for an employee with the potential to do better.

5. Plan and Prepare

It is best that you prepare in advance.  You will need to have all the relevant facts at your fingertips, including any extenuating circumstances that you need to be aware of.  Make sure you have identified and acquired the support you need including HR and witnesses (if appropriate).  You also need to check and know the relevant policies.

Plan the meeting including choosing a suitable venue where you and the employee can be comfortable and relaxed.  Allow sufficient time in the understanding that the employee may wish to ask questions and may also get upset.

6. But never rehearse

Not so long ago, the advice for managing courageous conversations suggested that you follow a set routine in the meeting where you have a script prepared to tell the employee what has happened, how you feel about it and what you want to see from him/her in the future.

Do not rehearse what you are going to say.  This only makes the situation worse because the employee feels devalued and unheard.

7. Your intention is to understand

Go into the meeting instead with your facts right, knowledge of the policies, and a clear understanding of what you want to achieve. 

Then, your job is to allow the employee to speak, to tell you his/her version of events.  Your job is to listen and understand his/her point of view.  The conversation will go much more smoothly if your employee feels listened to.

Avoid the temptation to ask lots of questions to interrogate the situation.  Approach it as a discussion and make sure your employee knows that you understand where s/he is coming from.

8. Ask him/her for the solution

Once your employee feels listened to and understood, you are in a much better place to progress the conversation.  Ask him/her something “What do you think my issue with the current situation is?” and allow the employee to tell you.  Then you can ask the employee for his/her thoughts on solving the problem.  It is much more powerful if your employee tells you his/her solution as now you can ask how s/he is going to put it into practice.

9. Plan for progress and support

Now that you have a solution in place, make sure your employee knows that you are there for support and guidance when needed.  The first part of this is creating an initial plan before the meeting is ended.

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