The Real Reason Your Managers Can’t Handle Difficult Conversations

By Heather Campbell

Long walks, country air and pubs with roaring fires. It had been a lovely weekend away, staying with an old friend and his wife in the Scottish Borders. By Sunday afternoon, my batteries were recharged.

But then it all went wrong. The couple, who’d been the perfect hosts for two days, had a full-scale row.

The ridiculous thing was, it was all about a houseplant.

The husband had been leaving it in its wicker basket when he watered it – and it turned out his wife had been quietly fuming every time, because the water had been seeping through the bottom.

Several times she’d taken the plant out of the basket herself, hoping he’d get the message. But she never actually said anything, because she was worried that he’d take the criticism the wrong way, and stop watering any of the plants.

That weekend she discovered that their new, expensive wooden floor had become badly damaged underneath the basket. And when she brought it up, angrily… well, let’s just say it was very uncomfortable as a house guest.

To me, it was all mightily familiar.

Time and again I receive phone calls from HR directors, looking to help managers in their organisations conduct big-issue, difficult conversations with their people.

Perhaps they need to tell someone who’s underperforming that their work isn’t up to scratch. Maybe they need to talk about a sensitive situation.

The managers are uncomfortable about handling these conversations – how to start, what to say, how to bring them to a useful resolution. They are worried that their staff members will end up in tears, shouting or turning against them.

And of course, because they don’t manage the conversations well, that’s often exactly what happens – just as it did for my friends.

When I work with these managers, though, I often discover a deeper issue.

The real problem is not just that they don’t know how to give difficult feedback on the big issues. It’s that – just like my friend’s wife – they can’t handle smaller, day-to-day feedback either.

Giving feedback – positive and negative – should be a frequent, low-pressure event. But too often people think of ‘feedback’ as management jargon for ‘criticism’. So managers avoid telling their employees when they make a repeated, basic error or when they don’t carry out a particular task as expected.

The employee continues, oblivious, lulled into a false sense of security while their manager quietly simmers. Eventually a bigger problem erupts.

That’s when HR gets involved, of course, but it’s usually too late by then for the quick-fix that everyone wants.

So if your managers are coming to you because they’re not sure how to tackle a difficult conversation with a team member, consider whether that’s the real problem – or just a symptom.

It may be that if you can give them guidance in dealing with everyday communication, many of the problems would never reach the stage of needing a ‘difficult’ conversation at all. Like my friend in the Borders.

And if you’d like help developing your managers to give regular, pain-free feedback, then contact CommsMasters to find out how we can help.

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