How to better manage difficult performance conversations

By Ang Brennan, Head of Learning and Talent at Insights

Employees within hybrid teams across Europe and North America told us as part of new Insights research that they are seeking more time one-on-one with their managers and more support to receive performance feedback.

It is one thing when the feedback is positive, however, in my experience parties tend to shy away from having difficult conversations when there are problems with performance. Such conversations can be awkward and difficult to manage, leading to stress on both sides. Certainly, our experience at Insights from tens of thousands of coaching conversations is that poor communication can be central to relationship breakdown.

As a manager, there are a few simple things that can be done to turn performance conversations into opportunities to create awareness, improve engagement and provide much-needed emotional and professional support.

Consider the impact you have as a manager

Employees expect managers to have the knowledge, expertise, experience and influence to handle all situations well. So, the way managers give feedback on performance to employees can leave a lasting impression. Being a manager is rewarding and a privilege and with that comes responsibility.

I had a personal experience, many years ago, when I observed a manager give feedback in an aggressive manner to a more junior colleague, who went away visibly upset. Afterwards, I approached him privately and asked him if he had any children, and how he would feel if someone spoke to his children, in the workplace, in the same way. He was shocked when he realised the impact he was having on others and resolved to approach management conversations differently.

Prepare for a difficult conversation

Where possible, signpost difficult conversations before you go into them – don’t just spring them on someone. That could extend to asking the other person how they prefer to receive feedback. For example, someone who likes time to reflect might be grateful for extra time to process their thoughts before going into the conversation.

No one wants to feel ambushed or blindsided, so use awareness to understand personal preference and make accommodations where you can. This increases the likelihood of turning a challenging conversation into a valuable learning opportunity.

Really listen hard

It can help to structure difficult performance conversations, which can help all parties stay focused. Make sure you invite the other person to tell their side of the story and really listen hard to understand the root of the issue. Perception can easily distort events and cloud our judgment, which can make difficult conversations even harder.

Assume positive intent

Go into conversations with curiosity and keep an open mind throughout. Remember that ninety-nine per cent of people want to do a good job. They don’t go to work to frustrate or upset others. So, try to assume positive intent. This positive approach also sets a powerful leadership example for others to follow and can positively influence company culture.

Know when to take a breather

Despite the best planning, there may still be occasions when the conversation doesn’t go as planned – before it’s too late, take a breather. You can usually tell when a conversation isn’t landing well by observing body language and listening to the tone of what is being said. Reconvene after a short break or agree another time to continue, conclude the conversation and move forward positively with a firm plan of action in place.

Invest in awareness

A large part of miscommunication when having difficult conversations comes from the assumption that others value the same communication style we value and will react to it as we would. But nothing could be further from the truth. Understanding the differences between our communication styles as a manager and learning how to honour those differences – particularly when it comes to having tricky discussions about performance is crucial to keeping relationships on an even footing.

The hybrid environment can be particularly demanding, with 42% of managers saying within our research that relationship building is harder because of this new way of working.

You can better equip managers to give feedback in this environment by investing in awareness to develop human skills.

At Insights we help organisations develop self-awareness through the use of colour – a non-judgmental language for teams to talk about interpersonal preferences. Our colour energy model, Insights Discovery, is underpinned by Jungian psychology principles and is a way to cut through the complexity of why we behave the way we do. Colour – Fiery Red, Sunshine Yellow, Cool Blue and Earth Green – helps to view individual or collective preferences, styles, strengths and the value we bring to the team.

We have seen first-hand how using this common language of colour energies to understand preferences can transform interpersonal communication.

Heightened awareness at the heart of management enables strong relationships at all levels, better-equipping everyone to navigate the physical distance of hybrid working and have those difficult conversations in more positive and impactful ways.


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