We can laugh about it today. My new neighbor had just moved in across the street and, because he was new, he parked in just the perfect spot to block me from getting out of my own driveway. When I headed across the street, I was sure we were going to have a pretty good dust-up. I was ready. Imagine a fierce look and a clenched jaw.
Fortunately for me, my neighbor is a jovial guy who’s great at diffusing situations. We got his car moved, and it’s never been a problem again. When people ask me about how to have effective performance conversations, I think of that incident.
Most of the literature on having conversations with a teammate about performance or behavior just focus on that one conversation. They don’t recognize that the conversation happens as part of a relationship and that there are two other kinds of conversations you should have before the performance conversation that will make it less stressful and more likely to be effective.
Human Conversation in The Workflow
One of the things I’ve learned at almost half a century at work is that great bosses touch base a lot. When they do, they usually stop to chat.
I’m not talking about boss-to-teammate chats that are strictly about work, I’m talking about those human chats that people of all kinds have with each other. The subjects often don’t have anything to do with work. They might be about a child’s soccer game or a juicy local scandal or how to prepare a turkey for Thanksgiving. They’re conversations, which means that the participants are adults who both talk and listen.
If you want to have stress-free and effective performance conversations, you must have human conversations in the workflow first. That’s how you build relationships. And relationships make things go smoothly. Now that my neighbor and I have a relationship, it’s not likely we’re going to have an incident like we had that first day.
Conversation in Regular One-On-One Meetings
One thing that effective team leaders do is have regular one-on-one meetings with every team member. For most smaller teams at lower levels in organizations, those often happen weekly. For dispersed teams or teams up toward the executive suite, bi-weekly is usually a good frequency. The one-on-one meeting is an opportunity for you and your teammate to head off misunderstandings and catch problems while they’re still small and easy to solve.
The one-on-one meeting shouldn’t be an evaluation session, where the boss talks and the other person listens. One-on-ones should be a conversation. To recap, a conversation is something between two adults where both talk and listen. It should be a conversation about working together.
If you don’t have the kind of conversations I’ve just talked about, having a performance conversation will be hard. It will be a lot like that first conversation with my neighbor. We didn’t have a relationship. We’d never worked on anything together.
Your human conversation in the workflow sets up relation-building that makes performance conversations easier. Regular check-ins should help make sure that you and your teammate are on the same page and working to make each other successful. Even so, sometimes you must have a conversation with a teammate about behavior or performance that’s not up to standard. When that happens, a little technique will help.
Start by briefly describing the reason you’re having the conversation. By briefly, I mean only a few seconds. Describe things that are observable, like behavior and performance results. Don’t talk about things you can’t observe, like “attitude” or “motivation.”
Don’t use any adjectives. No matter how carefully you choose them, adjectives are judgmental. You want to describe the behavior or performance in absolutely non-judgmental language.
Follow that up with an equally short statement of why the behavior or performance needs to change. This is almost always about how the behavior or performance affects other people. What is it about what they are doing that makes it necessary for the behavior or performance to change?
Those two statements together should only take a few seconds. Now your job is to be quiet. Don’t talk. Shut up. Wait. The next person to talk must be the other team member.
If you wait, you may hear something that surprises you. You may hear that you and the teammate have a misunderstanding that you haven’t caught already. You may hear that there are circumstances which you didn’t know about or didn’t understand properly. Your teammate may say, “Yes, you’re right. I’ll change.” If you jump in and talk before your teammate, you may never hear those things
Whatever happens, the non-judgmental lead-in and pausing and waiting for the other person to speak sets things up so you can have a real conversation. Discuss and decide what needs to change, when it needs to change, and how you and your teammate will know it’s changed.
Performance conversations can be intensely stressful and difficult, but they don’t have to be. Set the stage by building a relationship with regular human conversations. Use your regular one-on-ones to address understandings and solve problems when they’re small. If you still need to have a conversation, use a non-judgmental statement of the behavior or performance and why it matters followed by a pause that gives your teammate the opportunity to speak next.
The 347 tips in my ebook can help you Become a Better Boss One Tip at a Time. There are more than two dozen posts on improving performance conversations.