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Eat Your Spinach. It's Good for You

Having the Unpleasant Conversations You'd Rather Avoid

by Kimberly M. Wiefling, M.S.

There's one project leadership challenge that I dread above all others: talking with a team member who is underperforming relative to the needs of the project and/or the unrealistically high standards of excellence that I hold for myself and others. It's not that I'm conflict averse. In fact, there are times when I flat out enjoy a roiling argument or a self-righteous rant. In those cases, I don't bloody well care what the other party thinks of me, nor whether the relationship will be in tatters as a result. Hey, sometimes I'm even purposely torturing the poor bugger! But when it's a friend, colleague, or team member with whom I'd like to have some kind of continuing civility, maybe even a productive working relationship, it can be downright paralyzing. "What if I screw it up?" I muse to myself. "What if I inappropriately blurt out my frustrations with their perceived ineptness?" I ruminate. If they are critical to the success of the project, and rather difficult to replace in a pinch, I wonder "What if they tell me to get stuffed, scream that they never want to see my ugly puss again, or simply spend the remainder of the project seething quietly, hostility oozing from every pore, while deftly undermining every important aspect of the project within their grasp?" It's enough to stop me dead in my tracks just around the bend from their office, or freeze my index finger poised just above the bright green 'call' button on my brand new iPhone.

"Good Enough" Performance

In some ways, if someone is doing a truly abysmal job, it's a no-brainer. The sense of obligation most competent project leaders feel to deliver results usually outweighs the importance they place on preserving any one particular relationship. After all, truly scrappy project leaders are used to going up against wayward suppliers, tardy action item owners, and unreasonable executives in order to meet commitments. If they're undeniably awful, then you simply must take action. If you don't, the rest of the team becomes demoralized, and then you have two problems to solve!

Marginal performance problems are a bit trickier because it's too easy to cling to hope that things will improve on their own. If someone's performance is arguably adequate, there are all kinds of ways to talk yourself out of having what can be a rather delicate and dangerous conversation about what's bugging you. Wouldn't it be better to settle for mediocre results and have everyone get along? Ah, yes ... let's all join hands and sing "Kumbaya" or "We Are the World" while the project goes to hell in a hand basket.

Actually, no, that's not gonna work for long, and you can't afford the antacid you'll need to deal with your chagrin as you watch results creep inexorably towards "good enough." When performance is consistently "adequate," you owe it to your project, your team, yourself, and the person in question to have an open and honest dialogue about it. Otherwise, you simply feed the conspiracy of low standards that is the norm in many organizations. It goes something like this: "I won't hold you accountable, so don't you dare hold me accountable, and we'll all get along pretty well while collectively contributing to mediocrity in our projects, our businesses, and ourselves." (Patrick Lencioni addresses this source of organizational dry rot in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, if you want to explore the roots of this widespread corporate disease further.) Not only is that kind of behavior unprofitable, it's an unconscionable failure of leadership that every decent project manager ought to scrupulously avoid.

What Unresolved Performance Situation is Tapping You on the Shoulder?

If you're working with a dozen or more human beings there's a pretty good chance that there's at least one relationship in need of a delicate conversation. Which one is it? Where have you looked the other way, bitten your tongue, or kept a tight-lipped look of resignation on your face rather than speak up and address an issue that's nagging at you? Living with unresolved situations like this is kind of like paddling a canoe from the stern while a wild cougar is roaming loose in the bow. You can't focus on keeping the boat moving in the right direction, and you sure as hell can't enjoy the scenery during the trip!

If you do indeed have such an opportunity lurking in your canoe, maybe it's time to hoist yourself up by the backbone you were born with and tackle it head on. If so, here's an approach that could take a load off your mind, resolve the issue, leave the relationship intact (or maybe even better off), and put an end to merely tolerating—or secretly loathing—the other person. Besides, human beings are pretty good at picking up non-verbal emotional signals, and we tend to overestimate our ability to hide our true feelings. If you're harboring some longstanding resentment towards a team member, chances are they already suspect it. It stands to reason that this awareness is creating an even greater negative impact on results than their initial performance lapses, and the responsibility for that incremental impact is entirely due to you. It's time to step up and do the tough job. That's why you get paid the big bucks.

Run It Like a Project

You wouldn't start an important project without a careful analysis of the stakeholders and a rigorous definition of the goals. Neither should you embark on the adventure of a delicate dialogue without doing the same.

1. Prepare Thoroughly

Who's involved? Who are the stakeholders in this interaction? Certainly, you and the other person, but think about others as well. How about the rest of the team? Their family? (As we all know, sometimes personal issues can contribute to lapses in excellence.) Mutual friends? What are the goals of engaging them in the conversation—for you, for them, for your relationship in the future? To borrow a trendy TV term, what do you want as an outcome for the "intervention"? What problem are you solving? I find it's helpful to fill out a grid like this:

Observable Facts that Everyone on Earth Would Agree On My Perceptions, Which Seem True Enough, But Are Merely One Way of Perceiving the World The Story I'm Telling Myself Based on These Facts and Perceptions
They were 3 – 5 minutes late for 3 of the past 4 meetings. They seem to be unaware that they are coming in late. They don't value my time, and they are trying to show me who's boss by testing the boundary of meeting start-time with me.
They took actions that were different that we had agreed upon in our meetings. They can't seem to remember what we agreed, and they talk as if they are very sure they are remembering accurately, and I'm the one who got it wrong. They've got a brain tumor and they don't want to tell me the bad news just yet.
The client told me that they had some concerns about the clarity of the communication in the meeting. The client is frustrated with this person, and they're approaching me when they should be addressing their issues to this person directly. They failed to build a strong relationship with the client, and now I have to waste my valuable time sorting out the trivial problems that arise between them and the client.
When I make comments in client meetings, they start over half of their sentences with the word No, and then set about basically agreeing with me. They seem intent on contradicting me in front of clients, even when we are pretty much in agreement. They don't respect me and they are determined to undermine my standing with our clients. They're a certifiable sociopath.

The essential element here is to clearly distinguish between perception, reality, and the whack-job story that a brain sometimes conjures up to explain what's happening in the outside world.

Clearly, you have to develop some kind of compassion for the other person before engaging in the discussion, or it's just going to be a stream of vitriol that will leave behind only the smoldering remains of your former relationship. I find it helpful to ask, "What would have to be true for this person's behavior to make perfect sense ... in fact, given similar circumstances, I'd do the very same thing?" This application of the assumption of positive intent helps to avoid falling into the blame game trap. If you can't come up with anything more plausible than "brain tumor," don't do it alone. Get help with the meeting. You're going to need someone to facilitate the discussion to keep it from going over a cliff. Another surprise ... sometimes just filling out this table is enough to solve the problem, even without the discussion. Sometimes our stories are the real source of our grievance. When we consider that our stories might not be "the truth," some problems dissolve into minor irritations, or evaporate altogether.

2. Pick the Time and Location with Care

Arrange a time that's totally convenient for them, and won't have either of you rushing off to another meeting. Schedule twice as much time as you think you will need, then add a bit more buffer just to be safe. After all, most projects are 2 – 3 times over schedule. Do it on neutral ground—absolutely away from the office, preferably someplace with a nice ambiance and a positive vibe (which excludes nearby meat-packing plants or the county jail). Pick a place that the other person would appreciate. Sitting outdoors in a breezy café sipping strawberry lemonade is a good choice for some, over a beer at a down-to-earth sports bar with Jim Rome yammering on in the background works for others. Just make sure it's someplace the other person would feel comfortable. And bring your credit card—this one's your treat whether your company reimburses you or not.

3. Dress for the Occasion

Costume impacts the way we feel, and the way others respond to us. Wear something that makes you feel good about yourself, and communicates that this is an important business meeting. Don't outclass them with a snazzy suit. Try to look like a decent, humble, well-intentioned professional who is taking the meeting seriously. No dark glasses, please. Eye contact is a crucial element of this kind of communication, as is a facial expression of sincere respect and a relaxed posture. No looking at your watch, no foot tapping, no eye rolling, and no nail biting.

4. Treat Them with Dignity, Compassion, and Respect

Don't just schedule the meeting and surprise them with the content. Tell them that you have some concerns about your working relationship, and that you value their relationship enough to work through it. Ask if they'd be willing to get together to talk through the issues and work out a mutually agreeable solution. If they say no, well, that's useful information right there, and a whole 'nuther column I have yet to write.

Arrive ahead of time, greet them warmly, with a smile, thank them for agreeing to take the time to hear your concerns and talk through the issues. Reaffirm how much you value the relationship with as much sincerity as you can muster, and keep a friendly tone and look on your face throughout. (Studies have shown that people feel better after hearing negative comments from someone who says them in a positive tone of voice with a big smile, but feel worse after hearing positive comments delivered in a negative way.)

Clearly state up front that you will be sharing your perceptions and interpretations—which, no doubt, differ from their own. Distinguishing observable facts from the stories and negative judgments conjured up around the facts is your most powerful tool in this kind of communication. You are completely responsible for your interpretations and stories. They are only responsible for the observable facts. Keep that straight and you'll find that these conversations go a lot smoother. If you find out someone is always 5 minutes late for your meetings because the clock on their computer is set 5 minutes slow, it has a much different impact than if you think they're just blowing you off. And it's easy to fix! Ranting at them about how they don't appreciate the value of your time will only make them think you're unreasonable and delay the solution.

5. Stay Focused on the Goals and on Future Possibilities

Even while you're being warm and friendly, you're there to achieve a result, so don't lose your nerve. Stay committed to the goals for your conversation, and work toward achieving them. State right up front what you intend to achieve during the meeting. Something like, "By the end of our conversation I'd like to have come to an understanding of the issues that have been causing me to feel a bit of grinding between us, have agreed on some mutually acceptable ways to work through these issues going forward, and have our relationship be in better shape than it was when we started the conversation." Then make sure you both have a chance to talk and listen to each other's perspective and come to clear agreements on each issue. Of course it takes a bit of practice to speak with such eloquence while sweating and wringing your hands in a potentially conflict-ridden circumstance, so be sure to practice it out loud a few times in the bathroom before they show up. Pay no attention to that flushing sound in the next stall ... unless it's the person you're meeting, of course!

6. End on a Positive Note

Review anything positive that came out of the experience, including anything you learned about yourself through having the discussion. Mention how relieved you are to have had the chance to talk through the issues rather than keeping them bottled up inside, and show appreciation for their willingness to engage in the tough conversation. Assure them that your relationship has been refreshed by going through this difficulty together.

7. If They Don't Make You Sorry, Thank Them!

Assuming that they haven't gone postal on you, slashed your tires, or gone around bad-mouthing you to the entire project team, offer them your heartfelt thanks for joining you on this daunting journey, and for sticking with it even when it got a little bumpy. Talk about the future, and how you look forward to a much more enjoyable working relationship now that they've given you the opportunity to share your concerns. And follow up with them the next day to restate your thanks for their professional and personal maturity in the matter. Praise them for anything that you can authentically appreciate in their behavior during the meeting, and tell them what you honestly admire about them. No one ever gets enough of that.

Some Things Don't Stay Fixed

Of course, you might find yourself dealing with the same irritating situation a short while later. That's why you should also take time during your discussion to agree how to handle the situation if it comes up again. Say something like, "I hear how committed you are to resolving this, and I am too. How do you want me to bring this up in the future if we start to have this same issue again?" Taking their suggestions for how to follow up and reinforce the agreed upon solutions increases their commitment to keeping the agreements you made.

If you follow these steps, you'll achieve a much higher success rate than your fears might lead you to believe. Most people know their shortcomings better than we do, and won't be at all surprised when you bring them up. They've heard them before, frequently from the little voice in their head. And sometimes you'll discover that you've been anguishing over a simple misunderstanding. No matter what the outcome, if you want your relationship with that person to be something more than professional tolerance of each other, you have a responsibility to have the conversation. Letting mental baggage build up between you and co-workers just feeds the dysfunctional corporate culture that so many of us complain about but claim we have no part in creating. Half of that all too common dysfunction comes from conversations that should never have happened, like gossip and thoughtless criticism, but the other half starts with conversations that should have happened, but didn't. Don't add to the misery index in the world by leaving these important conversations unspoken!

Now ... deep breath, good luck, and write and let me know how it goes.

– Kimberly





Comments
Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Brilliant Kimberly!

If all leaders managed underperformance like this there would be no need to use the excuse of budget cuts to suddenly push good people out of the door.


Nice article Kimberly.

I think a lot has to do with how one's perception. One very important thing i have learnt is not to react instantly to any situation. Verify the facts and if one genuinely feels the team member is not supporting then, take action as you have stated.
I think in this world its always better to start on a humble note and we find that things get resolved so easily.


Great post Kimberly.

I love the heading in the table above that says “The story I am telling myself”. So true!!!

So often we are led to the wrong conclusions by our inner voice and we need to check to make sure we are not blindly following it. Sometimes we just have to let things go, if there no real impact on the project or team.

What gives me courage to have the conversations I dread is to think in terms of how the issue will harm the project or have a negative impact on other team members. If I can find a link, then I go on automatic and have the conversation regardless of how I personally feel about the issue.

But if I am just motivated by my own personal standards of performance that are not being met, then 9 times out of 10 I will find a way to just let it go.

Thank you for sharing these insights.



It's also worth reminding ourselves that the inadequacies we see in others are often merely a reflection of our own. The perfect 'corporate being' is a myth.


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