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Many managers have a fear of facing up to confrontation, but if you avoid conflict you’re doing both yourself and your team a disservice, says Tracey Powley

A survey conducted by the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR) discovered that 35% of managers would rather parachute jump for the first time than address a problem with their team at work. The same research put the cost of business conflict in Britain at over £33 billion a year.

Clearly, we need to be more effective in helping our managers resolve issues within their teams at work.  All managers at some point in their careers will have to have a ‘difficult’ conversation with a team member. And because a difficult conversation is one which, by its very nature, makes us feel uncomfortable, it is not surprising that many managers shy away from dealing with issues in their team and would seemingly prefer to hurl themselves out of a plane at 14,000 feet.

The trouble is, if issues aren’t dealt with early, they only escalate and organisations end up with something much more tricky to deal with. We worked with one company recently who had a performance issue with one of their long serving members of staff. He was often abrupt with, and even rude to, other team members, but instead of dealing with the issue when it first started happening various managers had off-loaded the problem by moving him to another department. When we came in to help, rather than have an inkling something was wrong, the poor guy actually believed he was indispensable. Why else would the company have asked him work in so many different teams?  Avoiding the problem not only allows it to snowball, but is actually deeply unfair to the team member.

So how do you have an effective ‘difficult’ conversation?

The most difficult conversations tend to be those addressing behaviour or attitude. Many managers make an assumption that staff know what the expected standards of behaviour are – it’s common sense isn’t it? But often staff aren’t clear what is acceptable behaviour or not – wok cultures differ enormously, after all. And it isn’t reasonable to get frustrated with someone’s behaviour or attitude if you have never communicated what you expect from them! 
So the first step is to set and communicate clear standards – if your organisation has a behavioural (competency) framework, this is the tool to use.
If this is the first time you have had to tackle a particular issue with someone, the tone should be informal, relaxed and conversational. Often team members don’t realise the impact they are having on others and don’t intend to come across in a “difficult” or negative way. This first discussion is about raising the other person’s awareness and nipping the situation in the bud.  

Preparation is key. Be clear about what you are looking for the outcome to be. As Stephen Covey says, “start with the end in mind.” Imagine it is the end of the conversation; what exactly will you have covered for you to feel it was successful? Writing down what you want to say will help with confidence levels and ensure you don’t “beat around the bush” ...which often only adds to people’s anxiety levels. We have seen far too many managers start the conversation with “do you know why you are here?” Don’t make people guess! It just fuels frustration and makes a constructive conversation harder. Be upfront about the fact you want to have a chat and why.  Indicating it is about having a discussion, not apportioning blame will help.

Asking the right questions will create a more co operative discussion; for example “Can you tell me what happened?” “What thoughts do you have on this?” 
And having asked a question, ensure you listen! A good rule of thumb in these conversations is for the other person to be doing 80% of the talking. When we are uncomfortable, it is easy to start babbling; letting the other person talk will help get to the root of the issue. In giving your observations, refer back to the standards you and the company expect and ensure you have clear and specific examples to illustrate the points you are raising.  With feedback on behavioural issues, people can often get upset or withdraw. If this does happen, give them time and if necessary take a break in the meeting. But agree a time to return to the conversation; don’t let it drift.

Support and agreement

The final stages of the conversation should cover what support might help and agree specific actions and standards to take forward. It is good practice to put a summary of the conversation and actions in writing and ensure you both have a copy. Hold a review meeting – it is common for managers to do all the hard work having these conversations and then never follow up – and this is often when performance slides again. In between meetings, monitor how they do and catch them doing something right. Positive feedback is the best way to reinforce the desired behaviour. Telling someone they are not coming up to scratch is never easy, but it is a key part of managing fairly and vital if we are to be respected by the wider team and start to make a dent on those spiralling “conflict” costs. 

Tracy Powley is Director of Focal Point Training and Consultancy Ltd.