Monday February 9, 2015
It can be tough being a boss. Most people don’t really like confrontation, particularly when it’s with someone they may have to work with day in and day out. Many make the mistake of thinking that if they just keep overlooking a performance deficiency or a behavior that is incongruent with company values, that the problem will self-resolve. Doesn’t work that way.
When we avoid confrontations that we need to be having, it sends a bunch of different messages that we really don’t want to send:
- To employees with performance problems, the message is that their behavior or performance is ok. What we fail to confront, we condone; it’s tacit approval.
- To marginal employees, the message is that our performance standards don’t really matter, or don’t matter anymore like they used to. Performance then erodes to the least common denominator.
- To great employees, the message is that we as leaders are either weak or clueless. It shoots our credibility with those whom we need it with the most. Our best team members get disapointed in our leadership.
Confrontation is like anything else – if we practice it right, we get good at it. The best way to overcome being one who avoids confrontation is to practice skillful confrontation every chance we get. If you think about it, every time we avoid confrontation, we are practicing the wrong thing. And though practice makes perfect, when we practice wrong, we become perfectly wrong. Avoid that be practicing the Open Door 4 Step Confrontation Model:
1. Start With What You Know. Take the time to gain knowledge before confronting an issue. Once you’ve investigated and asked questions, you will be in a stronger position to address problems. Focus on the job-specific challenges, such as working conditions that are less than ideal, challenging customers, long hours, cancelled vacations, computer problems, a steep learning curve, or even a display of effort on his part that has not had a successful outcome. (Stay away from health, relationships, or other personal matters.) When you start with what you know, the employee is less likely to feel the need to try to use those circumstances as an excuse, and it puts the performance issue in context. It demonstrates an awareness that few bosses articulate, and an empathy for the things the employee is facing on the job. It defuses, allowing you to focus on what needs to change. Frequently, starting with what you know will disarm the employee and help him listen actively. If he feels you understand his circumstances, he is more likely to view your correction as coming from someone who has taken the time to understand. You don’t need to be verbose about what you know. Be precise and concise. Make sure that what you say you know, you really know. Make sure it is fact. Don’t use conjecture. Avoid any reference to knowing how he feels. You can’t and you don’t. Just state the facts.
2. State the infraction clearly. Don’t get verbose. Don’t pull in how it makes you feel, or what others think. Doing so makes you circle around the issue without getting straight to it. Plan out what you are going to say and then you can focus the discussion on the issue. Don’t sandwich, don’t placate, don’t minimize, don’t exaggerate. Be clear, be respectful, be specific, be concise. Avoid generalities that the employee won’t be able to easily grasp. Telling an employee something fairly generic may seem like it takes the sting out of it. The problem is that it also takes the point out of it. Employees need to see the “why” behind the issue you are confronting them on. You may think they can connect the dots on their own, and perhaps they can, but don’t take it for granted. Help them see why the infraction is a problem so that they cannot blow it off as something that is not a big deal. This is an excellent place to reinforce your mission, vision, and values, depending on the nature of the infraction. If you are correcting a behavior, there may be a tie to your values. The impact could be on your reputation with customers, vendors, or other employees. If you are correcting a performance deficiency, it could have an impact on the accomplishment of your strategic goals, contradict your mission, or distract from the vision. Far too many employees are used to being just an employee – and in being treated as just an employee. Most expect something punitive out of confrontation. It’s just possible that by helping the employee see the “why” and the context in the bigger picture that you may turn the performance issue around and end up with a very engaged, productive employee.
3. Be clear about the consequences. Be clear and direct about what will happen if the infraction is repeated or is not corrected. This is where you must be careful. If you confine yourself to a specific outcome - such as a written warning - you limit your ability to do more than that the next time. And, if you fail to take the action you stated if it does reoccur, it undermines how serious the infraction really was, and further limits your ability to make a bigger issue of it in the future. Failure on your part to follow through if it happens again means that you condoned the infraction the next time. That will make it appear not to be that big an issue the first time. Do not promise something you don’t want to be bound to. You can simply state something like, “Incidents of this or anything similar will result in further disciplinary action, up to and including termination.” That puts the employee on notice that her job is jeopardized by continued performance problems. She cannot come back and say she wasn’t adequately warned should she fail. Do not set a time frame under which improvement must occur, unless you want the risk that a difficult employee will “be good” for that defined time period and then experience a deterioration of performance after the time period is exhausted. Call for immediate and sustained improvement, and then expect that.
4. Paint a compelling picture. Once you have made it clear what the problem is, and what the consequences will be if it is not adequately addressed, you need to re-engage the employee. Make sure that he understands that you believe it is possible for him to be successful, and that you believe it is up to him to do just that. Help the employee see a brighter future. Give him a picture of what things can look like if he is able to put the problem behind him, overcome the deficiency, and be successful. Utilize your vision, your mission, your values, and your strategic goals. Help him see a big picture he can get excited about again. You have to use the typical “At-Will” disclaimer language because you cannot predict the future and you should not guarantee continued employment for any particular employee. However, you can paint the picture as you would like it to be, complete with the involvement that you want all of your employees to have. Many employees will feel like giving up when confronted. Some will recommit themselves. Help them do that. Ask employees to come up with their ideas about how to be successful – to develop an action plan. Move into the coaching mode and provide assistance so that they see you as a resource; as someone on their side. Don’t enable. Don’t do the work for them. Let them come up with their ideas. You may not agree with them and that’s fine. Offer your suggestions, edit their ideas, but let it be their plan. In fact, let them own it! Ultimately, you want them to be responsible for their success. You are there to help point them in the right direction, refocused on the future.
A confrontation of this nature should be documented. You could just put all of these words into a memo, or use a standard form for disciplinary action that doesn’t go into this kind of detail, but merely documents the infraction and the consequence should it reoccur. Either way, it’s a good idea to have the employee sign it, stating that he understands the action taken and the consequences should the problem occur again.
Open Door HR Solutions helps employers with people strategies, by providing tools and resources like this Confrontation Model, and by providing on-site help, consultation, and coaching.
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