Historically, ‘crucial conversations’ used to be termed ‘difficult conversations’. In our drive to political correctness and repositioning everything into the positive, human resources language has changed (e.g. ‘criticism’, to ‘negative feedback’ to ‘areas of improvement’ to ‘areas of opportunity’). So workshops that used to help managers learn skills to conduct difficult conversations are now repositioned to help managers hold crucial conversations.
Regardless of terminology, the intent of the conversation has also broadened. A crucial conversation is really any conversation of significance. Those conversations could certainly be with a low performer, but could also be with a high performer. The first objective, regardless of the employees’ performance should be to have that employee remain engaged in their role and in the process.
Crucial conversations are fraught with emotions
Interestingly, in a recent pre-workshop survey where we asked managers to submit examples of difficult conversations, the majority of the examples were fraught with emotions. Often times, employees responded emotionally to the feedback given – from shutting down and not listening, to arguing, to being hurt to being aggressive. However, managers often times too felt nervous entering into and conducting the conversations.
Responding to emotions
During the workshop, many managers expressed the need to check or bring into balance their emotions, so that they could adequately respond and support the employees’ emotions. Also, we discussed the need to acknowledge the emotions on the side of the employee – managers don’t have to ignore that fact. Rather, acknowledge that the situation might be difficult for both parties. If the situation really escalates emotionally, the managers said that sometimes the conversation needs to be ended and another time needs to be booked to continue the conversation. In essence, the crucial conversation becomes a two-parter, with the second part focusing on action forward, not further issue identification.
Crucial conversations to the positive
Crucial conversations can also mean positive development conversations with high performers. They are crucial because managers want high performers to remain engaged and to retain those employees. So the situation may be that the employee has had a blip on the radar screen where s/he hasn’t met goals, or it could be a conversation to understand the career desires of the employee. For many managers, these are types of conversations that are not held frequently enough. Sometimes managers worry about talking to employees about career desires, because they don’t know or believe those desires can be fulfilled within the organization.
Ostrich effect is not a helpful strategy
However, putting one’s head in the sand is only going to exacerbate the issue. It is much better that managers know the expectations, so that they can plan on how to support employees to grow their skill sets, without necessarily moving into a new role. Often times, both employees and managers think the only next step is a new position, when really the next step might be to expand skill sets while remaining in the current position. Employees could do stretch assignments or cross-functional assignments to learn and improve skills that would be transferable in the future.