Running a Shop Leadership How To Lead

The Crucial Conversation

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Dealing with Unwanted Behavior
Three keys to honest conversations with employees.

Over the past few months, we’ve been on a quest toward effective leadership and I have shared some key concepts you can implement now. Last month, we talked about a technique called the direct conversation or the crucial conversation. We learned that these conversations need to happen as soon as is practical if an issue occurs, and it must be done one on one with the employee privately.

I asked you to have a few of these direct conversations with the members of your team and get a feel for the responses you will receive when you confront their behavior. So, how did it go when you had the direct conversation?

If we unpack the direct conversation technique a little further, you’ll see there are at least three keys to being successful using this method. First, you have to give the employee the assurance that you value them as a person and appreciate what they bring to the table as an employee. During the direct conversation, it is crucial that we maintain that philosophy even though we are seeking to correct an unwanted behavior.

The second key is to be very explicit about the issue or behavior you want to have fixed, changed or eliminated. In our example of an employee with a tardiness problem, it would be wise to do some homework and research before sitting down with Susie. Gather her time clock records for the relevant period and highlight all the instances of her arriving late to work. Have the documentation ready, but don’t present it at the beginning of your direct conversation. You’ll want to state that you are concerned because Susie is not arriving to work on time. This is the crux of the issue and it should be the only thing you are talking about at the moment. If you try to add other issues into the mix, both you and the employee will end up having a rambling, defensive and unproductive conversation that will probably end up accomplishing nothing in the end.

The third key is to offer to work together to come up with a solution to the problem. This is important because you are once again demonstrating that you care enough about Susie that you will invest your time and energy into making her a successful employee. The offer to help reinforces that there is indeed a problem that needs a solution and that ultimately the employee is responsible to come up with the solution.

Once you’ve stated your concern, the next thing to do is nothing. Just sit still and remain quiet. It is now Susie’s time to reflect on your stated concern and then to speak openly about it. Imagine what the employee might be thinking at this moment. If Susie were to say, “I’m really not late very often and it’s only a minute or two” then this would be the time to bring out her time clock records that you prepared prior to this. You will calmly but emphatically show her that the facts contradict her beliefs about how often she is late: “Susie, let me show you something. I ran your time clock report for the last 30 days and you’ve been late 12 times, sometimes by as much as 15 minutes.” And then you restate your question, “What can I do to help you meet our expectation that you will come to work on time”?

Susie might offer up other excuses and you’ll need to be prepared that this might happen. It’s pretty common for some employees to go from denial to deflection. As an example, Susie might say, “Well, you know, there’s a lot of road construction going on and this makes the traffic worse than normal.” In this case, you’re going to need to bring the conversation back to the issue and ask Susie to throw out some ideas on how to deal with the heavy traffic. I’ve found that most employees actually know the answer to the problem and that the solution is totally in their control.

If you’ve reached this point in the conversation, you’ve made great progress. Make sure you close the loop by doing a few more things. First, tell Susie that it seems like her idea is a good one and that you’re happy she acknowledges the issue and has committed to immediate improvement. Let her know that you’ll add a note in her personnel file memorializing the conversation you just had. Finally, agree on a date and time for both you and Susie to sit down and review the results of her action plan. This lets Susie know that you’ll be holding her accountable to her word and are going to follow up on it.

Next month I’ll talk about how to handle direct conversations when things go off the rails or if there is a potentially legitimate reason for an unwanted behavior.

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