What Great Bosses Know about the 10 ways to sabotage a tough talk

It’s time to have a tough talk about difficult conversations. Every manager has to deal with them. Many avoid them; few enjoy them. They don’t like delivering bad news or negative reviews. They don’t want to make a bad situation worse.

Love them or hate them, it’s not uncommon for difficult conversations to degenerate into a mass of misunderstandings. It happens when managers are right about the problem but wrong about the solution — and talk themselves into trouble.

Here are 10 ways bosses sabotage a tough talk:

1. Oops, I didn’t prepare.

You owe the employee and yourself some due diligence in advance of a difficult conversation. Gather as much information as possible about the problem so you are working from facts, not feelings.

2. I made it personal.

The classic leadership book, “Getting to Yes,” says it best: “Separate the people from the problem.”  Focus on quantifiable behaviors, not your assumptions about a person’s character. There’s a big difference between saying  “You’re late” and “You’re lazy.” Lateness is a behavior you can document; laziness is a subjective judgment, much harder to prove and possibly wrong. Stick with behaviors.

3. I got amazingly, incredibly, horribly hyperbolic.

Bosses set themselves up for challenge or correction when they toss out words like always, never, nobody, or everyone — as in: “You always claim someone else is at fault, you never double-check your work, nobody else makes this many errors, and everyone else agrees with me.” When you’re tempted to get hyperbolic, ask yourself:  Would I really want to have to document — or eat — my words?

4. I piled on.

Some bosses, especially those who put off tough talks, compile a private list of grievances. Then, when a significant problem finally triggers a conversation, the manager unloads everything — from the important to the petty. The boss’s appropriate goal of solving a key problem gets obscured in that barrage of criticism. Don’t purge; focus on what really matters.

5. I joined the debating society.

This is such a temptation — especially for bosses who love a good argument. The employee says something like: “What about Steve? He does the same thing and you never call him on it!” or “We have much bigger problems than me — what about our equipment failures?” And you take the bait. Instead of directing the conversation back to the problem at hand, you debate any and all challenges, just to prove you’re smart and right. Sorry, you just wasted time, energy and focus.

6. I fought fire with fire — or gasoline.

You start to talk; he starts to shout and swear. This is the moment when you can keep or lose control of the situation. Quoting again from “Getting to Yes”: “Deal rationally with apparent irrationality.” By staying calm you keep the upper hand. You think more clearly. And someone from your Human Resources department won’t say to you, “You said WHAT?”

7. I forgot to look up.

Your own boss has a stake in the difficult conversations you have. The more tricky they are, the more you need to know your supervisor has your back. Consult. Confer. Make certain your boss agrees with your assessment of a situation, so you don’t wade into a tough talk and discover you’re in over your head. In especially tough cases, some management teams actually role-play in advance to minimize surprises or mistakes.

8. I played by my own rules.

You’re a manager, not a dictator. People are entitled to clear standards, fairly applied. Don’t make threats you can’t enforce, promises you can’t keep or broker deals you can’t deliver. Know your organization’s guidelines for handling varying degrees of personnel issues — formal and informal.

9. What? I wasn’t listening.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you don’t know the full story as you launch into a critical conversation. Your perspective may be flawed. The employee responds not with empty excuses, but rather with facts and context you just didn’t know. Always be alert to the potential that you could be wrong and prepared to revisit your viewpoint. Keep your ears and mind open.

10. I failed to follow up.

Every tough conversation should have a “next step.” It may be a memo summarizing what was agreed upon or a check-in meeting to assess progress. In a best case scenario, it is an outreach by you, the boss, with a sincere thanks for an employee’s constructive response and corrective action.

Did you see yourself in any of those self-sabotage scenarios?  In our seminar sessions on difficult conversations, two of them seem to be the most prevalent traps. I reveal them in our podcast: What Great Bosses Know about Sabotaging a Tough Talk:

Poynter’s “What Great Bosses Know” podcast is sponsored by The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.

You can download the complete series of these podcasts free on iTunes U.

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