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How to have tough conversations: 8 tips
No raise. No promotion. Quality problems. All leaders have to deliver tough news sometimes: Use these strategies to deal with difficult discussions
6. Be specific
“Conversations need to be direct, regular, and honest,” says Giancarlo Di Vece, president of software development provider Unosquare. “Sugar-coating feedback does nothing for the company nor the underperforming employee.” Particularly within the technology group, those receiving feedback or information on their performance will respond better to detailed input supported by data. That may include concrete examples of a behavior, specific instances where the behavior showed up, or times and places it occurred.
“As a leader, you need to evaluate and ensure you have done your due diligence in advance of the conversation,” Freedman says. “Pull your examples together. Gather perspectives from others who have seen this behavior if that is needed to ensure you can provide clarity.”
In addition, be as honest and forthcoming as possible. When a leader or manager offers only partial feedback or fails to give the full reason for something, this “reduces the likelihood of their being able to address the problem,” says Freedman.
7. Replace "but" with "and"
Being thoughtful about language goes a long way toward having a constructive conversation. Instead of saying “You had great visual aids, but you could have given your audience more time for questions” try “You had great visual aids, and next time you might think about adding more time for audience question.”
“The word ‘but’ erases everything that comes before it and can put people on the defensive,” says Linderbaum. “The tweak may seem small but the impact it will have on how the receiver interprets the feedback and how it makes them feel makes a powerful difference.”
8. Offer remedies – and hope
It’s important to give the other party a remediation plan. Daniello always has a “get well” plan in mind for employees that may include additional training or mentoring sessions, for example. “Lay out a clearly defined path forward to address the feedback, including timing, milestones, and measures of success,” says Freedman. “This is particularly important if it is in the context of someone not getting a promotion.”
Giving the other person hope – that a raise is still an option, that they can continue to progress in the function – is helpful. Never end the conversation on a negative note, warns Daniello. But avoid giving false hope, Freedman says, as that “can damage both the employee and the leader’s reputation.”
[ Do you understand the signs of toxic leaders? Read Bad Blood: 4 lessons from Theranos for leaders. ]