By Gerard Burke, Founder and MD, Your Business Your Future

We all know that people are our greatest asset - and, for many of us, managing our people is also our greatest challenge. After all, very few owner managers go into business so that they can manage people!

Managing people is relatively easy when everything is going well. It's when things aren't going so well, and a challenging conversation is required about performance or discipline, that most of us tend to shy away. In fact, in our experience, owner managers can create an infinite number of reasons to justify their avoidance of challenging conversations with their staff!

The most common response seems to be to avoid mention of the subject entirely and just hope or pray that the situation resolves itself before the conversation needs to take place. In reality, of course, usually the problem just gets worse, and what might have been a small conversation turns into a BIG conversation. Sound familiar?

One of the regular topics in our work with owner managers is getting staff to perform to the standard expected to achieve the outcomes wanted for the business and for customers. Too many owner managers tolerate poor performance, make excuses for their staff, and hope that they will just improve. In my experience they don’t, and good managers know to tackle the situation proactively.

So, here's a few tips about having those challenging conversations.

We're not all created equal

Obvious as this may sound, not everyone is like you - imagine a world, or even just your business, if everyone were just like you!

And because, the other people in your business are not the same as you, they'll see the world differently, think about things differently and do things differently to you. They'll also respond to stressful situations, such as the challenging conversation, differently to you.

Of course, this difference gives strength to your team - even the superstar striker needs a team of other footballers in order to win.

So, recognise these differences. You might even find it useful to use some form of psychometric tool in the business so that people are used to talking about different types of behaviour and personality. In this way, when it comes the time for a challenging conversation, that conversation can be had in the context of the way the categories identified by the tool which creates a slight distance from the individual themselves.

Make a little conversation the norm

It is so much easier to address any issues of under-performance, and to give praise for good performance, if you regularly meet one-to-one with your team anyway. A good manager or employer should be talking with those reporting to them very regularly about any issues management may have, and any issues the staff member may have. Annual appraisals and six-monthly reviews are one thing. More regular meetings allow issues to be addressed promptly before they escalate to major problems.

Identify the issues you need to address

This is a classic working ON, not IN, the business activity. Take some time out to look at your business and consider what issues are causing blockages within the flow of the business, who is underperforming, where is there a conflict or a challenge? I suspect that if we were all honest with ourselves, we’d easily identify half a dozen issues where a conversation might resolve things.

Two ears, one mouth

When conducting such conversations, it can be good to use your ears and mouth in proportion to the number most of us were given them: listen more and talk less. We can then hear what is going on for our member of staff, and perhaps hear what challenges they face, and what may have given rise to the issues you want to address. You need to communicate your views, and do remember to give the other person space to engage in a dialogue.

Seek resolution

The conversation needs a purpose, and that should be resolution of the problem. By focussing on that as an outcome, rather than any specific course of action, you will remain open to possibilities, and can empower your staff to solve their own challenges. If you want the highest level of engagement, work with your colleagues to overcome the challenge, don't impose a solution from above.

We know less than we might think

As my wife keeps reminding me! Owner managers with troublesome staff often tell us that their member of staff is thinking this, or planning to do that, or their staff’s problem is in this area. And nearly always those statements are assumptions, with limited factual basis. So, approach the conversation with an open mind as to what might ACTUALLY be happening. You can be very fixed on what you want as an outcome, and what performance you expect, and you will do well to assume limited knowledge about why it may not be happening now.

So, which conversations have you been putting off (I know there are some!)? And you know the situations in your business that could be resolved by just addressing them. Delay very rarely makes it easier. So, please, just get it fixed.

And if you need any help with challenging conversations, take a look at the Managing People Effectively module of The Manager's Toolkit which focuses on helping participants develop precisely those skills.