‘Fierce’ Conversations when Dealing with Difficult Employees
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‘Fierce’ Conversations when Dealing with Difficult Employees

Reduce lawsuits and boost performance by dealing with difficult employees

Consider: Conversations between managers and subordinates are not about their relationship; the conversations are the relationship. While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the course of a relationship, any conversation can. Every manager and supervisor needs to understand the power of that dialogue before dealing with difficult employees.

“Fierce conversations,” says Scott, are the key to successfully dealing with difficult employees. But in this case “fierce” doesn’t mean cruel or aggressive.

Roget’s Thesaurus lists synonyms for “fierce” that include “robust, intense, strong and powerful.” And that’s what Scott has in mind when she writes about fierce conversations. In this context, fierce conversations that have to do with dealing with difficult employees are honest and real. They go right to heart of the matter – and they involve subjects that might ordinarily make a manager wince.

After all, many managers fear honest conversations when dealing with difficult employees. But if you think of past conversations that led to misunderstanding, disappointment or possibly even a lawsuit, you’ll realize that unreal conversations are more likely to lead to lasting harm than real and honest ones. Here are the seven principles of fierce conversations:

  1. Master the courage to interrogate reality Managers should ask themselves what’s really going on with the employee being dealt with. Has her performance changed? If so, how? People change. And some people are uncomfortable explaining why they don’t feel the way they once did about their job. In a fierce conversation, a manager should interrogate reality by asking the tough questions about what led to the current conditions.
  2. Come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real Managers shouldn’t let themselves, or their discomfort with the message they need to convey, come between them and their subordinates. This isn’t about you. It’s about your subordinates’ performance and the changes they need to make. Change can only happen as a result of a fierce conversation.
  3. Be here, prepared to be nowhere elseBecause people’s careers and lives succeed or fail one conversation at a time, managers should speak and listen as if each conversation is the most important conversation they’ll ever have. Participate as if it matters. It does.
  4. Tackle your toughest challenge now Burnout doesn’t happen because we’re solving new problems. It happens because we’ve been solving the same problem over and over. Managers dealing with difficult employees should have an open and honest conversation about the real obstacles in the way of a superior performance. What’s the biggest obstacle? Don’t dance around it. Address it head on.
  5. Obey your instincts Managers shouldn’t simply trust their instincts; they should obey them. Their radar screens works perfectly. It’s the operator who is in question. When managers tune in, pay attention and share their insights when dealing with difficult employees, everyone benefits.
  6. Take responsibility for your emotional wake Something a manager doesn’t remember saying may have had a devastating effect on someone who looked to the manager for guidance and approval. If you misspoke, repair the damage and move on.
  7. Let silence do the heavy lifting When there’s a whole lot of talking, conversations can be empty of meaning. Memorable conversations include breathing space. Smart managers slow down the conversation so that insight can occur in the space between the words.

Adapted from “Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work & in Life, One Conversation at a Time,” by Susan Scott, Viking Press, 2002.

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