As a leader, one of the toughest situation at work is when we have a non-performing staff who is not responding to our feedback, guidance and support. In this situation, the coaching approach might not be the most effective way to handle the situation. Coaching works well when there is collaboration, mutual trust and respect and when there is willingness from the other party to be helped. While many of the problematic staff situations might be contributed by the leader’s own perception, behaviour and approach, I’m going to assume here that the leader is generally effective in engaging the majority of his team members and yet, have one or two difficult staff to handle. I’m also assuming here that the person has more of an attitude rather than a skill issue that is contributing to the problem. Here are some tips to hold these difficult conversations.

Prepare yourself mentally and emotionally – These kinds of conversation are emotionally challenging for both the leader and the staff. If the leader can hold this potentially-charged conversations in an objective and calm manner, you have won half the battle. Reframing the situation in our mind before the conversation and holding a positive regard about the person is a useful start. It gives us the necessary courage and the right attitude to handle the conversation with less stress. Here are some mental reframes that you can use.

Reframe #1This is about them, not me” Leaders sometimes feel frustrated when dealing with difficult staff because they feel helpless when the staff is not responding to their feedbacks. It is useful to be aware that there is only so much that one can do to help and support another person. The staff needs to understand that they are accountable to their own development. If they choose otherwise, there is nothing much that you can do to help. Your role is to help them be aware of this choice.

Reframe #2“My actions will motivate 90% of my team.” When we have a difficult staff in our team, their behaviours affects everyone. Most of the time, the rest of the team wants to see a strong leader addressing these behavioural issues. Avoiding these conversations demotivates the rest of the team. Some leaders avoid addressing such issues for fear of demotivating that one person  but in turn end up frustrating 90% of the others.

Reframe #3Whatever the outcome is, I win.” Leaders sometimes avoid holding difficult conversations because they feel that they have more to lose if the desired change is not achieved. They are afraid that they will end up with more problems to deal with as a consequence of the conversation. It is important to be aware that we can never be certain of achieving any outcome in life. If the conversation turns out to be positive; celebrate. If it does not, use it as a learning experience to refine your approach the next time. You gained even though you didn’t achieve your desired outcome because you get to practice. Over time, you will be comfortable with holding such conversations.

Reframe #4 – “There is a good reason why the staff is behaving that way.” When we give the staff the benefit of doubt instead of assuming their bad intentions towards us, we approach the conversation with a positive emotional state of wanting to understand them. A useful self-reflection question would be, “In what situations might I be behaving in a similar manner, refusing help?”

Focus on behaviours, not content – I have noticed that difficult conversations cannot be effective if the conversation is focused on the content instead of behaviours. An example of content-based discussion is focusing on ways to increase sales and influencing the person on why he should consider your idea instead of just rejecting it. This kind of content-based discussions will not help the staff to understand the required behavioural shifts. Behavioral-based discussions on the other hand, focuses on behavioural shifts that the staff needs to make for example being punctual, listening more, being open to ideas to feedbacks, responding in a calm manner, not interrupting others etc. Focus on the required behaviours in such conversations.

Stepping up the conversation – Difficult behaviours are seldom solved in one conversation. You will probably need to hold a few, for any behavioural change to happen. The first conversation is to highlight what you are noticing and making a request of the behaviour you want. Next is to give feedback on the progress (or the lack of) and finally, explore consequences, if there is no progress. If there is a need for the fourth conversation, it will most likely be the final, implementing the consequences.

Example: Let’s look at  situation where a sales staff is not meeting his sales budget consistently. He is not receptive to feedback/ suggestions, does not offer ideas to improve, does not take responsibility for his work and accountability on his results (blaming people,environment and situations.)

First Conversation – Share your observations and make a request. (Sharing your observation) “Sam, may I share an observation? I’d like to have your thoughts on this. (Wait for  consent). In our last three meetings, including this, I have noticed that my offered suggestions to help you increase your sales were not very useful to you. I can appreciate that as you probably know your clients and your situations better than anyone else to know what will work and what wont. At the same time I’m also not hearing any ideas coming from you (the existing behaviour)  on how you would bridge your sales gap. Would you say that is a fair observation?” (Listen to his response. He may not agree with your observation. What is important is you allow him to express his views). Then say, “Thank you for your your thoughts. I appreciate your perspective. (Making a request) For our future meetings, I’d like to request that you bring in some ideas (the new behaviour) for us to discuss on how you think we can meet our sales budget. I believe that you have a deeper understanding and insights of your situation and I trust that your ideas will be more relevant. Can we agree to that?” (Get an agreement)

Second Conversation – Giving feedback on progress. Praise progress no matter how small. If there is no noticeable change, reaffirm your request.

(Let’s assume this is a tough case and he did not heed your request.) You say, “Sam, if you recall, I was looking forward to hearing some ideas from you in this meeting. Can you recall that conversation? (Pause for a response.) Re-state, “I’m fine with providing you with some ideas but it seems that those suggestion don’t work for you. So, I’m wondering, what support might you need from me to help you remember to bring in ideas and suggestions for all our discussions? (Pause and listen.) It is important for us to work with your ideas because of the valuable insights and knowledge that you have in your area. Can I count on you to do that the next round? (Say with a firmer voice and listen for a commitment)

Third ConversationExplore job fit if staff is still not responding. Reinforce and acknowledge positive changes of behaviours if you noticed any, no matter how little. If still no progress, explore consequences.

(Let’s assume there is still no behavioural change). Say, “Sam, despite my two earlier request about bringing in ideas for discussion, I’m not seeing much attempt towards it. I don’t know how else to support you to make it happen. I was wondering if you would like us to have a conversation to explore other work opportunities that will play to your interest and strengths. Sometimes, it is just a situation of finding the right fit for you. You might excel in the new environment or work. Would you like to explore in this area?

Choices – As leaders, we have only two options when faced with a consistently non-performing and non-responsive staff; to live with the situation or to hold that tough conversation. Some leaders avoid making this difficult decision in the hope that the problem will go away, eventually. It won’t. If we choose to avoid these conversations, then we need to hold ourselves accountable for that decision.

The Challenge – Are you ready to experiment and step up your conversation?


Written by our Business Partner:

Wai K, MCC, Executive Leadership Coach (www.jmcconsult.com)

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