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Crucial Conversations to Have with Your Employees

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Crucial Conversations to Have with Employees
Simple tips to improve direct conversations with employees.

It’s time to continue our journey on effective leadership principles and actions. We’ve discussed some of the key factors that contribute to engaged employees, namely trustworthy leadership and the salt shaker model that utilizes constant, gentle, pressure to set and maintain the standards we have for our employees.

So, let’s dig a little deeper into constant, gentle, pressure. You will recall from previous columns that the folks at Gallup conduct employee surveys to measure their engagement. One of the questions they ask is, “Do you know what is expected of you at work?” and since it is the first of 12 questions in the survey, I believe that it must be one of the most important. This also leads me to believe that a lot of employees at a lot of companies do not know what is expected of them at work.

Right now you might be saying “Hey, Steve, my employees know what’s expected of them because we have job descriptions for everyone” or, “Hey, Steve, not only do we have job descriptions but we also do annual reviews for our employees.” Some of you might be thinking, “Man, I don’t have written job descriptions; maybe I should hurry up and create them.”   

Time out for just a moment. I believe in the value of a job description up to a point because I think everyone needs clarity about the general responsibilities of their position. But I also know that most of us look at a job description about once, maybe twice, and then it is forgotten about. Regarding annual reviews, I do not believe in them. I used to conduct these reviews and it was stressful for everyone involved, the employee and I weren’t on the same page, and the employee always saw it as a compensation review.

Another example of the downside to annual reviews is the latency factor. I cannot honestly recall how well an employee is doing in each category over the course of a year. What usually happens is I can remember the defects and deficiencies of the employee’s performance and therein lies the paradigm shift that effective leaders need to experience.

It’s also not fair or productive to do what some leaders do when there is a performance issue. Using a tardiness example, I’ve seen many leaders deal with it in one version or another that might seem familiar to you. Tell me if you’ve ever heard a manager say these things when an employee is habitually late to work:

“Wow, good afternoon, thanks for joining us.”

“Nice of you to grace us with your presence.”

“Glad you got your beauty rest last night.”

This sort of sarcastic commentary about the employee’s tardiness does nothing to enlighten the situation or provide a solution to the problem. Furthermore, it accentuates the ineffectiveness of leaders who do this and, trust me on this, the rest of your team doesn’t like what you are doing.

Is there a better way? Yes. Employees do expect to know what is expected of them. If you have an agreement with an employee that they will start work at 8 a.m. each day, you have the right to hold them accountable to this. If there is trend that develops, and an employee does not arrive to work on time, it’s up to you to deal with it now—not during an annual review.

There is a technique that you can use for this that is called the direct conversation or the crucial conversation. These conversations need to happen at the moment the issue occurs, and it must be done one-on-one with the employee privately. For an employee that is often late to work, the conversation goes like this:

“Susie, you are doing a great job as director of first impressions. I’m concerned because you are not arriving to work on time and one of our core values is to be diligent about our work schedule. What can I do to help you meet our expectations about your timeliness?”

Now, I want you to notice a few things. I did not insert the word “but” between “impressions” and “I’m concerned.” The reason for this is any time we say “but,” the preceding statement is completely negated and, in this case, Susie would not believe that you think she’s doing a great job overall. Secondly, notice that you are offering to help her come up with a solution to the issue but are very clear that it is an issue. Finally, it is now up to Susie to do the work of acknowledging the problem and working on a solution.

I want you to have a few of these direct conversations with the members of your team and get a feel for the responses you receive when you confront their behavior. In my next column I will continue to dig deeper into this leadership practice, and it will be more meaningful to you if you start practicing the direct conversation now.

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