In any relationship, there comes a time where it’s necessary to say things which are difficult to keep the relationship strong and make it better. This is also true in a healthy team environment. All leaders have things they need to say, which are hard sometimes.
For me personally, this often involves having a challenging conversation with a team member – someone I love being on the team, but know they need correction in an area, which is affecting the team. These are always discussions I’d rather not have, but I know are necessary for the continued health of the relationship, the team, and the individual.
Over the years, I have had many of these issues which required “tough love” to address them. I began my business leadership experience in retail management. At certain times of the year there could be 100’s of associates on the sales floor. It provided ample opportunity for problems I had to address with individuals.
But, those opportunities have continued throughout my career in leadership. And, dealing with problems has included me having to say things such as:
- You’re too controlling as a leader.
- You can be perceived as a real jerk to people.
- Your laziness is dragging down the team.
- You have body odor.
- You’re making making too many mistakes and don’t seem to be learning from them.
- You are non-responsive to your team members or others. It’s slowing down progress and it’s unfair to everyone else.
- Your personal life is impacting your work. How can I help?
- You don’t know how to take constructive criticism.
- You are too critical of new ideas.
- You are moving too fast.
- You are moving too slow.
- You are uncooperative.
I should note – most of these have not been said with my current team – thankfully.
Through my years in leadership, however, I have had to say each one of these statements to someone I was supposed to be leading. Those conversations, as awkward and uncomfortable as they are, always prove to be good for the team and the team member.
In full disclosure, there have been times when someone needed to have similar “tough love” conversations with me and those discussions always made me better, as difficult as they were to receive at the time.
If you have to have one of those conversations, I have learned some principles to make them more palatable.
Here are 5 tips to have hard conversations:
Handle the conversation as quickly as possible – If the problem is clear in your mind (and usually everyone else’s mind), and you’ve witnessed the problem long enough to know it’s a pattern, don’t delay long in addressing the issue.
Be honest – This is not the time to shift blame, make excuses or dance around the issue. Be clear about the problem as you perceive it.
Be kind and helpful – You may read my post 5 Ways to Rebuke a Friend. Although this post deals more with a subordinate than simply with a friend, the previous post suggestions may be helpful here also. Your end goal should be to make the team member and the team better after the conversation. Don’t just blast a person. Use the “sandwich approach” when possible. Place the hard words in the midst of things which are good about the person and your commitment to them.
Have a two-way conversation – You should be willing to listen as much as you speak. You may not have all the facts exactly right – or you may have – but give the person a chance to respond to the criticism you are addressing. This also means you should have a two-way conversation, and not a multiple party conversation. You should address the issue with the person you have a problem with, not with others on the team behind his or her back. If you need someone in the room with you for perception issues or as a witness, make sure they are committed to privacy.
Move forward after the conversation – The person being corrected should leave with the assurance you are moving forward, and, provided improvements are made, do not plan to hold the issue against them. It will be important they see you responding likewise in the days ahead.
Know when enough is enough – You shouldn’t have to have these type conversations too frequently. Talk becomes cheap if there’s no backing to what’s agreed upon. If there seems to be no improvement over time, harder decisions or more intensive help may be needed. If you have done the other steps here, there is a time when tough love says “that’s enough – no more”. You are not doing your job as a leader if you continue to ignore the issues everyone else sees as critical to the health of a team.
One of the most difficult times for me as a leader is addressing issues like this with a team member I genuinely care about, but I know it’s one of my roles as a leader to address these most difficult issues.
What would you add to my examples of difficult conversations you have had with someone on your team?