By Gary Wyles, Managing Director, Festo Training & Consulting

There is nothing that strikes fear into most managers more than having to have a difficult conversation with one of their team. Handling poor performance, addressing a bad attitude or having to convey company news that could negatively impact people’s jobs, can make for many a sleepless night for UK managers.

Yet, each of these situations actually represents an opportunity. It all depends on how you manage a team and the training and culture that exists in the organisation. If you reframe these difficult discussions as courageous conversations you can immediately see the difference. But it takes a lot to be courageous.

Before embarking on a courageous conversation, there are a number of steps that a manager should take to identify key emotional reactions. The first is being sensitive to other people’s emotional responses. This requires care and attention to think about how each team member might respond. Sensitivity can give surprising insights into your people’s emotional well-being.

On the other side of this coin is actually being self-aware. The blind spot for many managers is usually how their own behaviour is being received. Daniel Eisenberg who wrote ‘The Softer Side’, says that most leaders exhibit what he terms “CEO disease”, where they have no sense of how their own moods affect their people.

For many managers the issue of change can bring about difficult situations. Whether this is concern from employees about the security of their jobs, fear of the future, worry about additional responsibilities or workload, there can be a myriad of possibilities. What is constant though is that whatever emotions are present, they are contagious and will spread like a virus. Another critical aspect is that employees can sniff out any form of deception, so if a manager does not believe in the reasons for change it will be quickly apparent to all employees. Handling your own emotional responses and leading by example are paramount.

Before any courageous conversation is due to take place, preparation is important. While we cannot predict every eventuality or indeed every emotional response, managers should know their team well enough to have a good understanding of how people might react to change.

Here are some steps on how to put courageous conversations in practice:

1. View from the other side

It is natural for us all to be concerned with what we will be facing. We know we need to have a conversation that will not be comfortable so we tend to focus on our responses. If they say this, how will we counter it? If this issue is raised, how will we deal with it? This is a natural response, but it is not the most helpful.

Far more productive is to think about what it is that could contribute to their behaviour.

2. Change your perspective

A change in the business environment is one of the most common reasons for a change in behaviour or performance in the workplace.

This is, of course, aside from the emotional issues that individuals might be experiencing in their home life. When probed and questioned sensitively, employees will more than likely open up and reveal what is troubling them. It is far more difficult for them to ‘come clean’ about what is troubling them in the workplace.

It is common for attitudes and behaviours to change when people are facing the unknown and it is also difficult for them to voice their concerns. There tend to be five common reactions to change:

• Fear of the unknown / surprise.
• Climate of mistrust (bad history).
• There is no personal reward to change.
• Loss of job security or control.
• Fear of failure.

3. Understanding the personalities

Psychologists refer to the fact that personality is static. We are who we are. However, our response to situations, while rooted in personality, is flexible and can manifest in attitudes and behaviours that can be difficult to manage. Stress is one of the underlying factors that contribute to a change in behaviour.

Using a personality assessment tool such as DiSC provides a common language that people can use to better understand themselves and their team. For managers, it can be helpful in understanding other people’s reactions as well as adapting their own behaviour and interactions with their team.

4. Communicating change

In terms of communication that addresses negative reactions to change, the following needs to be considered:

1. Timing is everything. Communication needs to be planned – involving people early in the decision-making process can mitigate the reactions of fear and surprise.
2. Integrity. Individuals can respond negatively when there is mistrust of the organisation, mistrust of leadership and management and potentially a poor history regarding change. Being honest about the past and demonstrating how this project or the people involved have changed will help restore trust.
3. Personal. Make the communication personal; identifying what positive aspects the change will deliver to each individual. After all, if rewards are a key component of change, what will be in it for your people?
4. Security. Handling people’s fear about job security or a loss of control is one of the most difficult aspects. If it is likely that there will be job losses, then giving people firm dates about when information will be available is crucial, so while no guarantees can be made there will at least be confidence in the process.
5. Fear of failure. A change project can sometimes seem like a mountain to climb. Fear of failure creates procrastination in pushing forward. In all communication there should be a strong central vision about what the future could look like and then very clear steps that are broken down into achievable targets. This makes the change seem more achievable. Celebrations can be built in at the end of each key step.

5. Change your interactions

Are you really interested in helping your employees? Really? For many of us, we just want to maintain the status quo. Get back to how things used to be. We really don’t want to worry about someone else’s emotional response. That’s their problem, surely.

This is a common reaction of managers and leaders. We’re all focussed on the future and on making things work. Carrying someone else along with us is hard work.

Approaching your team with this attitude will not engender trust and loyalty. It will definitely not elicit a change in behaviour, certainly not a positive change.

Having your people’s best interests at heart is a fundamental. If you do then you’ll both be aligned to a common goal.

When you are certain that you are really concerned and there to do the best for your team, then you can have a successful courageous conversation. That’s because you’re not focussed on fixing things. You’re focussed on doing what’s right for your people, yourself and the company. There’s an old phrase, ‘To change the world, you have to change yourself’. Changing your interactions and your response, putting other people first, is the first and most successful step you can make.

6. Why coaching makes a difference

There is skill required to handle and change the behaviour and attitudes of employees. Having a coaching culture in place can greatly enhance a manager’s ability to have courageous conversations with their team regarding a change management process.

Not only will a manager have the time to reflect on his or her own behaviour, coaching establishes a one-to-one relationship that is built on trust and respect. If employees feel respected, supported and valued they are more prepared to change their own behaviour.

It is often the case that individuals are aware of their own attitudes and behaviours; they might just need a safe and secure place to vent their anger and frustration without the fear of recrimination. Knowing that coaching conversations are private and confidential enables the manager and their team member to reach a decision that is right for the company and of benefit to the individual.

7. Put it on the table

Sometimes, this requires the manager to be able to confront an individual with the stark reality of the situation. Managers need to be fully aware of the relevant policies and procedures as well as being skilled in these discussions. If handled badly, it can result in a poor outcome, greater cost and, worst of all, an adverse affect on others.

However, if point 5 is in place, then addressing issues in the context of caring for your people means that confronting things and demonstrating how their behaviour is affecting them personally and the team as a whole makes a whole world of difference.

8. Follow-up

It is unlikely, if not impossible, that a single conversation will have a miraculous effect on behaviour in the long-term. During the conversation, there should be a plan of action. What are we going to do about this? What do I need to do to help make the changes required? What do you need to do? When will these be done by? When shall we reconvene to discuss progress?

This essentially forms a contract by each of you to live up to your word. Earn your people’s trust by doing what you said you would. Earn their respect by ensuring that they do what they’ve said they will.

Stepping up to managing your people, facing your fear and having a courageous conversation is beneficial to you both. It’s about creating those win-win situations where both parties can feel supported, reenergized and focused on the future.