How to Say “You’re Not Performing” and Other Tough Messages
I’ve yet to meet anyone who likes to have sticky conversations. They’re hard to get right, cause unintended consequences, and leave us feeling unsettled. As a manager, these conversations are part of the job – a part we’d rather avoid. Many leaders spend hours trying to prepare for a short conversation in an effort to convey the message with clarity and trustworthiness. Trust is particularly key. If you can manage to preserve trust, or even strengthen it, you can maneuver these situations with agility and grace.
Trust is hard to build with a tough message. It’s helpful to remember that trust starts with you: in order to increase trust you have to first trust the other person. If you want to be able to trust others, then you need to also project trustworthiness. In many ways, you get the trust you expect.
While obfuscating or avoidance can seem like more palatable options to get through the day, opting to be straightforward and direct will reflect better on you in the long run. Having the conversations that need to be had is part of effective leadership. It erodes trust for entire teams when leaders don’t exhibit the courage to tackle the hard issues.
Consider these three conversations leaders frequently have, and how to tackle them from a trust-building perspective. Difficult situations put attention on the relationship that carries the message. It’s an opportunity to come from a place of our core values.
“You’re not performing.”
Performance related conversations are typical for managers, and rarely fun. The bigger the issue the tougher the talk generally, but personalities, rapport and history play large roles as well. To preserve trust, it’s critical to discuss the performance issue with as much candor as possible. While it feels more comfortable to soft-peddle the information, don’t. Be specific about what exactly needs to improve, so the employee doesn’t have to read between the lines. Also, ensure that it’s not a one-way conversation: ask for the employee’s perspective, so you understand the complete picture and the person feels heard.
While the performance talk may be the hardest part, it’s not the end. After diagnosing the issue, offer a way forward that, while meaningful to the other person, is not necessarily in your self-interest, such as regular one-on-ones, mentoring, cross-functional opportunities, or outside training. Trust continues to be built during this entire process, so check in regularly with the employee to demonstrate your commitment.
“The company is going through a reorg.”
If you’re helping a company restructure and reorganize, building trust is absolutely necessary to sustaining performance, retention, and a cohesive culture. An employee can lose an entire career’s worth of loyalty in a poorly executed reorganization.
When communicating what’s happening, stay optimistic, provide context and explain the “why.” Reference similar companies that have faced the same obstacles and pulled through, while making sure to avoid over-promising or creating a false sense of security. Tell it straight: if jobs will be lost, say so. If you don’t know an answer to a question, say so. Be swift: make deep initial cuts instead of trickling through layoffs and changes.
Continually show your team that you care and understand their concerns, while helping them to see the larger picture. Encourage them to ask for status reports and give people as much information as possible so they feel more of a sense of control.
Reorganizations can be long and drawn out, so pay attention to your own energy and that of your teams. You should be leading with your energy – project what you want others to feel – but not be so far from your team that you seem out of touch.
When firing an employee, it can seem absurd to think that building trust is even a remote possibility. The emotional difficulty of this situation is aggravated by the fact that many terminations are managed to mitigate legal risk: say as little as possible, get the person out of the office quickly, and have them sign a severance document agreeing not to sue. Telling someone they have 15 minutes to pack up their things creates animosity for the company and its leaders – and is nearly always unnecessary.
You can preserve the most trust by doing what you can to help the employee leave with dignity. If possible, give someone early notice that a dismissal is on the horizon so they can prepare to leave. You can also offer to allow the individual to resign on their own accord with two to three months of pay, while in the job or as severance.
If the departure is amicable, companies will often hire the employee on a part-time basis so they can wrap up unfinished projects and have a smoother transition. If the termination is due to a bad fit, you may be able to act as an informal adviser to help the person find a role in another department or company.
Terminations cause everyone involved some level of anxiety, often because they force us to act against our core values. If you can find a way to anchor to trust, you can play a key role in ameliorating a very tough situation.
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