4 mental shifts that will help you have a difficult conversation

Having conversations you don't really want to have is an unfortunate fact of life for managers.  You can't do your job effectively if you aren't able to constructively confront situations.  But difficult conversations are, well, difficult!  We tend to worry a lot about specifically what to say or not say, which is certainly important.  However, the words become a little less critical if you can go in to the conversation with a more constructive mindset, as you will set a different tone for the interaction.  

Here are four mental shifts that can make it easier for you to go into a difficult conversation, no matter whom it's with.

Management Tool: Annual Review Checklist

Overview of the Performance Review Cycle

The performance review document is part of an overall performance management process, often conducted on a 12-month cycle.  While each organization approaches things differently, components of a typical process include:

  • Setting goals for the upcoming year

  • Conducting a mid-year check-in

  • Writing formal performance review documents for each employee, often with a rating

  • Conducting a year-in-review meeting with each employee to discuss the document

  • Making performance-based salary increase decisions

  • Communicating salary increase information to employees


The Purpose of the Performance Review

The performance review document is just one part of the process, but since it provides the basis for all of the other steps, it’s pretty important!  At a lot of organizations, the process is treated like just another administrative task, about as much fun as submitting expense reports.  The smart manager knows that this process, however cumbersome and illogical it might be, provides an opportunity to take a strategic approach to employee development. 

The performance review, if done well, can serve multiple functions:

  • Official organizational record of the employee’s performance and contributions for the year
  • Supporting documentation for salary/promotion decisions
  • Basis for formal conversation with employee regarding his or her performance
  • Guidance for employee on what to focus on

What to Consider When Writing Annual Reviews

In addition to following your organization’s procedures for writing the reviews for your employees, you may also want to consider some key questions:

  • Who will be actually reading the worksheets?  Will your manager read them?  Your manager’s manager?  The division head?
  • What should someone else, either a reviewer in your reporting chain or perhaps a prospective hiring manager, know about the employees’ contributions?
  • Whose input might be important in developing a complete picture of each employee’s performance?

The “audience” for a written performance review includes more than the employee.  When you are writing it, you should think about how someone who doesn’t know the employee or the team’s work, such as your great-grand-boss or a new supervisor who takes over from you, would process the information.  Would it help that person understand the employee’s performance?

Checklist for Annual Reviews

Here is a checklist of the key steps involved in writing performance reviews:

Increase your business acumen

How well do you understand your company's business?  For many roles, it isn't critical to know the ins and outs of the business model, marketing strategy, sales targets, etc., and you can get by without really understanding the larger context you're operating in.  However, if you want to be able to ensure your team's viability in the short term and advance your career in the long term, it's worth your while to brush up a little on what you don't know.  Understanding the business can help you in your career even if you don't plan to stay at this type of organization or even in this particular industry.  Having worked at a startup, federal and state government agencies, higher education, management consulting, and international development. I can attest to the commonalities across industries and company size.  

How To Manage An Employee Who's Older Than You

"I have kids your age" is not really something you want to hear from one of your direct reports.  However, as the workforce becomes less tenure-based and more results-based, this is going to become familiar to a lot of managers.  It might be tempting to just laugh it off, but if age keeps coming up in team conversations, it might be worth addressing the issue head-on.

Improve Your Delegation By Not Answering Questions

Some management pitfalls reflect a lack of skill, but this one ironically occurs more frequently the more experienced and skilled the manager is.  The problem?  Answering employee questions.  But wait, isn't that the job of a manager - to help employees carry out their work and give them the information they need to be successful?  Well, yes....and the way in which you do it matters a lot.  

Get More Done By Doing Fewer Things

The following approach will help you transition to a kanban model where you limit the number of projects that are active at any one time.  It will also give you a visual representation of the work that you can use to communicate with your boss about where a new "#1 super-important priority!!!" project fits into what's already on the list.  If nothing else, just having all your work documented in one place will be helpful in giving you a sense of accomplishment and focus.

What To Do When Your Employee Resists Doing Part of Their Job

Every job involves tasks that aren't our favorite things to do.  As the saying goes, there's a reason they have to pay you to do your job.  Once we gain more experience, the proportion of disagreeable tasks will hopefully diminish, but at the beginning stages of any line of work, there is usually a fair amount of "grunt work."  Employees who are in their first post-college job don't always expect this, especially if they haven't had much internship experience.  They lack the context to see why certain administrative tasks might be important, and they sometimes also don't see why higher-level employees couldn't do those tasks instead of them.  It can be helpful to question "the way things have always been done," but only to a point.  Sometimes, the work just needs to get done, and the reluctant employee just needs to do it.  But what about those times when an employee consistently tries to avoid doing disliked tasks, whether openly or surreptitiously?  Here are some questions to ask yourself and some options for you to consider in addressing this all-too-common management challenge.