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How to have tough conversations in even tougher times

If you feel like the way you work has drastically changed since the onset of the global pandemic and upheaval over systemic injustice, you aren’t alone. And yet work needs to go on! Many companies, large and small, have been forced to rethink nearly every aspect of their strategies. If there is a silver lining to be had in all of this, it’s that many companies have discovered how flexible, resilient, and nimble they can be, especially when it comes to their people.

Among the many tarnished linings, however, is the fact that people’s development isn’t happening like it once did — including having difficult conversations about performance. 

While we have many different ways of staying connected, the fact remains that some conversations are best had in person… but what if you aren’t sure when you’ll be able to do that? And what if the issue at hand needs an immediate correction?

We’ve hired an experienced HR director to give you the do’s and don’ts of having all sorts of challenging conversations, from clients to employees to peers, even while the state of business is ever-changing:

Here’s what she said… 

The Do’s

  • Do consider whether now is the right time. Some issues are urgent — but many others can wait.
  • Do make sure your feedback is realistic. Are you frustrated because someone’s child keeps popping up in Zoom meetings? Or annoyed because you can hear garbage trucks outside their house? Is there an internal bias you need to consider? Take a moment to challenge yourself: Is this feedback relevant to their individual performance… or is it a product of challenging working conditions? We’re in a period of serious upheaval, which brings stress and difficult circumstances; ask yourself whether the problems are unique to an individual or a systemic issue that you and the rest of your team can work on together. For the example of noise, would a budget for better microphones and perhaps sound dampening not be a better solution?
  • Do prepare specific examples of what’s been going wrong, how it’s negatively impacting work, and what needs to change. No one likes to hear vague feedback (especially when they’re already stressed!) and no one can make changes without understanding the next steps. 
  • Do an assessment of who you need to speak with. What do you know to be true of them based on past experiences? Are they emotional? Do they prefer a direct, no-frills approach? Are they likely to deflect? Leverage your relationship and strategize the best way to help them not only hear what you’re saying but feel ready to take action. 
  • Do present them with a choice of how to have the conversation. This can be as simple as an email stating, “Hey Amy, I’d like to chat with you about your job performance, your workload, and how you’re handling the recent changes. Would you prefer a phone call or video chat?” Not only does this prepare their mindset, but it also gives them agency in how you engage. 
  • Do acknowledge that this conversation isn’t ideal under current circumstances and demonstrate flexibility and sympathy. 
  • Do focus on what’s right and not who is right. This is a conversation, not a break-up. If the conversation gets heated or the other person becomes emotional, call a recess! No one likes hearing negative feedback and adult brains take longer to process any information outside of what we accept as truth–so allow the other person some time to handle their feelings, take a deep breath, and then get back to work. 
  • Do follow up with an email outlining what you spoke about, what you each committed to, and what the next steps are to get things back on track.

The Don’ts 

  • Don’t deliver feedback when you’re feeling emotional. It’s okay to feel frustrated — but process your feelings and then connect when you are calm and able to lead the discussion in a professional, future-focused manner. 
  • Don’t use broad generalizations such as “you always” or “you never.” 
  • Don’t use broad and loaded terms such as “aggressive,” especially considering such terms are often applied selectively to people in certain groups (e.g. women, non-white people).
  • Don’t force the conversation to happen in a way that disregards the other person’s comfort. Video chatting under any circumstance is awkward and while you might feel the need to look them in the eyes, understand that it’s an imperfect medium for communication — especially if you have to deliver tough news. 
  • Don’t sandwich tough feedback. For example, “Amy, I love how responsive you are and I really appreciate your use of emojis. You’re not doing a great job keeping up with Air Table and I need you to clean it up. But don’t worry, you’re awesome!” That type of feedback is confusing, insulting, and doesn’t land the correct message. 
  • Don’t engage in re-blaming, arguing different points of view, or any unproductive behavior that clouds the waters. Don’t allow yourself to become distracted from your key message about specific, concrete changes to make. 
  • Don’t leave them hanging. This means having the conversation when there’s plenty of business-hours buffered around it. Make sure you’re available if they have follow-up questions or want to talk again. 
  • Don’t avoid delivering feedback because of our current climate. If you allow the behavior to continue, you are sending a message that the behavior is acceptable — and then you only have yourself to blame when it continues or escalates. 
  • Don’t be afraid to role play with a friend or colleague. It helps to have practice time! 

The bottom line

Remember, we’re not just “working at home” — we’re working at home during a pandemic and a massive popular movement. We’ve all got more worries and stress, and fewer resources. It’s not a free pass for harmful behavior, or talking about it. But it is a time to bring extra consideration and humanity to all work conversations.

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