After more than 20 years of working in the management development space I am absolutely certain that one of the missing skill sets in most managers when managing performance is the ability to have the critical conversations. There is so much time and money wasted on conflict and difficult situations that could be avoided if managers knew how to have the right conversations and skilfully manage differences of style and opinion, which are normal aspects of human nature.

Having the right conversations start with clear communication. The ability to send a clear message, listen really well and ask effective questions sounds very basic, like Management Skills 101, however I never cease to be amazed at how poor most managers are in applying these ultra-important skills. The majority of managers use a lot of ‘telling’ whereas a Great Manager uses a lot of ‘asking’.

Managing Performance – Critical Conversations

Conversations that turn ‘critical’ usually do so because of misunderstandings and different perceptions about the message being sent. If not handled well they turn into a “who’s right and who’s wrong” conversation that goes nowhere and leaves the relationship fractured.
Critical Conversations (CC) are a part of life. Sometimes an everyday conversation can turn critical so it is important to have a level of mastery in these essential skills. A critical conversation is one where there are differing opinions, emotions run high and the consequence of not resolving it will result in damage to relationships or outcomes.

Think about your experience of managing performance and critical conversations:

  • Are you less successful at times than you’d like to be?
  • Do you find people reacting in ways that surprise you?
  • Do you end up in conflicts with certain individuals without intending to?
  • Do you wish you could have a critical conversation on the job (or at home) and keep your relationships with others intact?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you are not alone. Good interpersonal skills are a must for managers. While some kinds of abilities remain stable or decline as we age, our ability to increase our interpersonal intelligence can grow continuously and it is essential that we are open to continuously improving in these skills.

Managing PerformanceWhere a Great Manager excels when managing performance is in identifying when a conversation has become critical and immediately deploying his/her CC skills. Self-knowledge and self-management are essential for mastering critical conversations and managing performance. Very often it is the inability to manage emotions that causes critical conversations to get out of control.

Great Managers know that managing performance involves dealing with inappropriate behaviour and staying focused on the desired outcome or result required. They know how and when to say “that’s not acceptable”, “that’s not working” and “let’s identify some solutions to improve this situation”. They can do this directly, respectfully and inclusively. At the same time the other person maintains their respect for the manager. I often call these the “tough love” conversations where difficult topics are addressed, emotions and opinions can be expressed, and the people emerge out the other side with their relationship intact. Trust is essential for this to occur and trust and communication go hand-in-hand.

How would you describe the level of trust in your current workplace?

Many experts agree that trust is an important element of managing performance and a successful workplace. Patrick Lencioni (2002), states that trust is absolutely essential for teamwork and without it an organisation will not achieve optimum results. Trust creates safety.

Great Managers know that for a difficult situation to be resolved when managing performance, they need buy-in and commitment from all parties. For this to happen people need to be honest and they will only do this if they feel safe. A Great Manager knows how create a safe space to seek out others’ perspectives, express their own thoughts, and ask for suggestions and solutions.

As Managers and Business owners, I am sure we have all been exposed to staff behaviour or conflict that we thought was less than desirable. Maybe you have been in this type of situation and, despite knowing better, have just “let it slide”, avoided dealing with it, thinking that the problem would resolve itself. Or perhaps you have been in this type of situation and, despite knowing better have really “flipped your lid” with your staff and said things you regretted afterwards. Both are common mistakes when managing performance, but mistakes nonetheless.

Managing Performance – Conflict

Conflict can be resolved if the real issues and needs are identified and dealt with at an early stage, however once it escalates or is allowed to simmer without being addressed, it can become entrenched where people are more interested in working against each other than resolving it. It is astounding how long some people will hold onto a grudge in life, however in a workplace this can be positively destructive, causing sabotage at worst and minimal effort at best.

Manage Performance by having the Critical ConversationsA 2008 research report commissioned by global human resources firm CPP states that ineffectively managed conflict is costing businesses millions of dollars per year. The study found that U.S. employees spend 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict, equating to approximately $359 billion in paid hours that could be described as ‘lost’ productivity.

The question for managers and business owners, therefore, is not whether it can be avoided or mitigated; the real concern is how conflict can be skilfully dealt with. If managed improperly, businesses’ productivity, operational effectiveness, and morale take a major hit. Good people leave. If dealt with skilfully problems can be unsurfaced, new ideas and solutions worked through. The report also suggests that conflict has a bounty of positive potential, which if harnessed correctly, can stimulate progress in ways harmony often cannot.

The thing is very few of us are ever taught productive and active ways to deal with managing performance of the difficult people and situations we encounter.

CC skills are so important that I strongly encourage you to take a training course to learn these ultra-important skills. This is one strategy that needs a lot of work and practice and simply reading about will only get you part of the way there. You can learn more about succeeding with critical conversations and managing performance by joining the Great Managers Academy.