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How to Tackle Tough Conversations with Employees

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Having awkward conversations is the work of a leader. As a leader, our job is often to make people uncomfortable. And by “awkward conversations,” I don’t necessarily mean confrontational. Sometimes that is true. But, typically, bringing awareness to someone about themselves or their way of thinking is plenty awkward for the run-of-the-mill workday. Typically when we bring awareness to someone, we’re not sure how they will respond. Will they be angry? Will they feel defeated? That’s where it can get awkward—quick. 

Maybe I can explain this better with a story: This past month was not great at two of my locations. The prior month, we had record sales at all our locations and then, the following month, it’s like the bottom fell out at two of my locations. As shop leaders, we all know that there is an ebb and flow to revenue and often the factors that drive business can seem completely out of our control. 

On the last day of the month, I was talking to one of our production managers. 

“Hey, Tom, it looks like we’re not going to hit our monthly number,” I said. 

Awkward silence. 

“Tom, are you still there?” I waved my hand in front of his face. 

“Yeah, I’m just thinking how I want to respond,” he said. “I guess I just feel like it’s all my fault. Like maybe I’m just not doing a good enough job.” 

This is precisely where many of our best leaders go: The Shame Game. The first place they look when things go wrong is themselves. This is not a bad place to begin in many ways. Taking personal responsibility is a key part of leading others. But I knew Tom was prone to taking on too much responsibility and once shame sets in, it takes him to a dark, defeated place. 

“Well, I know you’re putting the effort in! And the last thing I want you to do is go to a dark place right now! That won’t help anyone, especially you,” I offered. “I’m curious, what else might it be?” 

“Well, Jim said he heard from some parts delivery guy that it’s slow everywhere. Maybe there just wasn’t enough work out there to go around this month,” Tom said. “Or maybe it’s the big consolidators that just came to town. I heard they got all these big contracts with the insurance companies that have been steering all the work to them. I don’t know, really. We haven’t seen much weather lately either. Usually, we get snow by this point in the year. Maybe it’s global warming’s fault.” He grinned as he said the last one. 

Now Tom had a full head of steam. If it wasn’t his fault, it had to be something completely out of his control, right? 

I let him get out all of the things that he initially thought it might be. 

“Tom, I’ve got good news and bad news. None of those things are really the problem. And honestly, I don’t know what the real issues are just yet. But, can we take another look at some of the things that are more in our control and see if there’s anything we can do differently? I’m hopeful we can discover it together.”

The blame game doesn’t promote learning or taking action. Blaming things outside of our direct control creates a self-defeating cycle. It disempowers us. We blame the weather, the state of the industry, our competitors. And sometimes we blame ourselves, which leads to heaping shame on this already heavy pile! Anything and everything that makes us the powerless victim of the story. Victims are, by definition, powerless, unable to take action. Victims can’t get creative about solutions. They just have to “take it.”

The very tools we most need when things get tough—creativity, taking action—get stripped away with the blame and shame games. 

But I’ve found a way out. It’s changing the game with one word: unless. My mentor Michael Hyatt taught me this at a recent training event and I use this at least weekly and sometimes daily to get me back in the game. 

Here’s how it work:

When we hear ourselves or others going to blame or shame we simply add the word “unless” to the end of the sentence and try to think of other possible solutions. 

Here are a couple examples.

“We can’t compete with the MSO consolidators and their massive marketing budgets and insurance contracts unless... we use our local and family-owned status as a marketing advantage.”  

“We haven’t had any weather to drive business this year. We can’t get enough volume to hit our budget unless… we had a fleet account that would create a more predictable workflow year-round.” 

“I guess I’ll just never be good enough to be a production manager! Maybe I should just find another job that better suits me… unless… I took some training classes in production management or found a mentor from another location who has gone from newbie to mastery of this role.”

Sometimes when we feel defeated and like there’s nothing we can do to overcome our current situation all we need is one, simple, magic word to unlock the possibilities: unless. 

What current challenge are you facing? How might “unless” help you discover a new opportunity lurking in the shadows of blame or shame?

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