open thread – June 16-17, 2023 — Ask a Manager

So admittedly I deliberately started managing in easy mode: I resisted attempts to promote me until I was on a team where there weren’t individuals I had difficulty working with. Because I knew perfectly well that developing that skill was important, but it wasn’t what I wanted to start with; I wanted to lay a groundwork first and work my way up to difficult conversations.

But! Since you’re already there, here’s my 2 cents.

I agree with a recent post of Alison’s (May 31) that “discipline” has little to no place in conversations between adults. I prefer to frame difficult conversations as “informational”. First I get information (critical to ensure I’m not missing something! which I usually am), then I give information, then we see where it goes.

Part of how I manage my frustration with employees who are not performing up to standards is that I tell myself that there are three most common reasons for the behavior I’m seeing:

a) The employee isn’t getting something (information, support, etc.) they need, and thus they are just as frustrated/stressed/bored/unhappy in some way as I am. Finding out what they need and finding a way to give it to them will clear up the problem.

b) The employee thinks everything is hunky-dory because they’re missing some critical piece of information. Finding out what they need and finding a way to give it to them will clear up the problem.

c) There is no reasonable way to give the employee what they need to succeed in this role, meaning the role and employee are a mutual bad fit.

Step (a), which I’ve observed over and over again, and which I’ve seen managers massively underestimate, really helps with seeing myself and the employee in the same boat, trying to solve the same problem. And that really helps frame the conversation in a way that the employee is less likely to get defensive, adversarial, etc., and is more likely to approach the conversation in a collaborative problem-solving mindset, and that helps lower my stress levels.

“am working on good rapport with everyone to prevent these situations to begin with”

This is great, because the best time to solve a problem is before it starts! But since you haven’t elaborated on what you do here, I’m going to break down a bit what I do–and then if you’re already doing all this and that’s what you meant, maybe it’ll be useful to someone else.

Related to what I said above, building rapport isn’t just about being on good terms with someone when things are going well. It’s about actively collaborating on the tiny issues while they’re still tiny, before they become big.

So if I’m seeing a behavior that I don’t like or agree with, I try really really hard to avoid leading with “You shouldn’t do X.” I try to remember to lead with, “Why did you do X?”

I am surprised by the number of times they had a reason that makes sense to me, and problem solved!

Then the next most likely scenario is X made sense to them, and I say, “I see why you would do that. In future, if you run into this again, the thing you should do instead of X is Y, and here’s why,” and that makes sense to them and again, problem solved. This is an informational conversation, because if they had known Y was a better option, they would have taken it!

Then there are times when they’ve agreed to do Y, but for whatever reason they keep doing X. I have been known to give mentoring conversations about social capital to employees, saying that, “When you do X, you spend social capital with your coworkers because of blah-blah reasons, and these are the consequences of spending that social capital. When you do Y instead, you build social capital.” This is another informational conversation.

I don’t know how much this is recommended, but I have been known to give employees a talk saying that I am documenting the number of times X occurs, and that the reason a manager would bother documenting behaviors is so there’s a paper trail in case we need to justify a PIP, which is the prelude to firing. I tell them that most managers probably won’t tell them when they’re documenting behaviors, but I’m telling them because I want them to have a chance to fix this waaay ahead of when they need to be concerned about PIPs or firing.

Now, obviously that’s for things like performance problems that can go on for a while, not yelling at people or refusing to speak to me problems. And some of those people are in category (c), and you may have inherited that and have to take steps to end their employment in that role.

But I have seen good people in category (a) whose bottled up frustration was just exploding, and that’s where at least *trying* to approach it from the angle of, “Is this person not getting something they need, and if so, is it reasonable to give it to them?” can still be very useful.

Hope this helps!

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