The crucial conversation lesson I learned the hard way

If you manage others you have probably ran into a similar situation to the story I am going to share. You may have handled it differently a with more skill than I, but my hope is that my error will improve the way you handle yourself in situations such as this in the future.

A few years ago, I had an employee with a toxic attitude. He always thought he was right, he didn’t take constructive criticism well, and he seemed to like to start gossip amongst his co-workers. I have never shied away from giving tough feedback to an employee, so one day I sat him down privately and told him what I thought of his attitude. I gave him specific examples, told him ways he could work on it, and explained that I was here to help him as needed. These conversations are usually difficult because the employees you feel most comfortable giving critical feedback to are generally employees you have the best relationships with and, the specific issue removed, are generally quite likable. It is important to be fair and give them honest feedback, even if it is tough for them to hear and for you to deliver. 

While having these types of crucial conversations is important to speak only for yourself and no one else. While talking to the employee I said, “The management team thinks…”, “The leadership team feels…”, and “We have been seeing this a lot from you lately…” these are simple phrases that distanced me from the situation and made it easier to give the tough feedback. It allowed me think, “I’m not the only one that feels this way, other people feel it too” Well, this would be completely fine if those people were in the room with me, but they weren’t… It was just he and I in a small office. This caused my message to become diluted and for him to wonder who else thought this of him. Needless to say the conversation didn’t go well and my point was not made. To make matters worse, he then went up to other managers and asked them to corroborate my story by saying, “Do you really think this about me?” I can tell you now that your co-workers aren’t always going to back you up even if they had just told you five minutes prior they felt the same way. Sometimes leaders will take the easy way out and just shrug their shoulders and plead ignorance and say that they don’t see anything wrong with their behavior. Well in this situation that made me look like a liar and a bully, picking on the employee with no one to back up what I had to say. 

Eventually things worked themselves out, but I learned a valuable lesson for crucial conversations. The only people that matter are the people in the room. You can’t speak for others during these conversations, you have to step up and speak for yourself and what you feel, what you think, what you see, and keep it to just the facts. Distancing yourself from the tough feedback isn’t going to make it any easier on the co-worker or yourself, it really is taking the easy way out! If you have good intentions and are trying to make someone better and you believe in them, being honest and forthright will pay dividends. Just grab the co-worker, pull them into a private room, and tell them the truth while speaking only for yourself… Someday they may thank you for it and you will be honing a valuable skill that you can use in your professional and personal life.

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